Israel intends to legalize four unauthorized West Bank settlement outposts that it had previously pledged to at least partially demolish, according to Peace Now, a non-governmental organization and advocacy group that promotes a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In a written response to a Supreme Court petition by Peace Now, the government said it has taken steps to give retroactive approval to four West Bank settlement outposts that had been built without official approval.
"In the response, the government declares its intention to legalize four outposts, in isolated areas," Peace Now said in a statement.
The move comes days before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits the region to revive the dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The Israeli settlement watchdog group said the move will create a setback for Kerry’s efforts to bring peace in the region.
"The intention to legalize outposts as new settlements is no less than a slap in the face of Secretary Kerry's new process and is blatant reassurance to settler interests," Peace Now said in a statement.
"The ... government is indicating it is not committed to peace nor to a two-state solution," it added, the AFP news agency reported.
Israel’s settlements in West bank -- which it captured in the 1967 Middle East war -- are considered by most of the world as illegal. However, Israel believes that about 120 outposts built with government approval is legal; it also determined that about a dozen posts constructed without the government authorization are illegal.
The four outposts of Givat Assaf, Givat HaRoeh, Maaleh Rehavam and Mitzpe Lachish are included in a 2005 government report as illegal and needing demolition or eviction. A court had later ordered the shutdown of these outposts, but government appeals against the order have delayed the closure, Reuters reported.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right wing coalition government argued in court that the settlers purchased the private Palestinian land where the buildings stand, which led the government to declare the outposts as authorized.
Kerry is scheduled to meet Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in two separate meetings next week.
There have been mixed reports from Israel on the settlement issue in recent months. Last week, local media reports said the government had halted the settlement activity by freezing the tenders for new homes in the area in an apparent bid to facilitate the U.S. attempts to restart the peace talks, Reuters reported.
However, Peace Now said the Netanyahu government last week approved the construction of 300 more houses in the disputed land. Curbing settlement in the region is considered a difficult choice for the Netanyahu government, which draws considerable political support from the settlement regions.
An estimated 500,000 Israelis have settled in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Palestinians say belongs to them.