Washington, D.C. – The United States has renewed its opposition to Israeli settlement policies, saying that Washington was “extremely troubled” by an Israeli law that paved the way for restoring illegal settlements in the north of the occupied West Bank.
State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters on Tuesday that the law, approved by the Knesset hours earlier, violates Israeli commitments to Washington against advancing settlements in the area.
“The legislative changes announced today are particularly provocative and counterproductive to efforts to restore some measures of calm as we head into Ramadan, Passover and the Easter holidays,” Patel said.
He added that the US “strongly urges” Israel to refrain from returning settlers to the area, parts of which are privately owned by Palestinians.
The law, approved in a 31-18 vote in the early hours of Tuesday, reverses a 2005 Israeli measure that ordered the evacuation of four settlement outposts in the northern West Bank.
On Tuesday, Patel went on to broadly criticize Israeli settlement expansion. “This is something specifically we have been very clear about — that the growth of settlements and outposts is inconsistent with our views on what steps are necessary to get us to a negotiated two-state solution in a peaceful way,” he said during a news briefings.
Despite the strong words, Patel was pressed repeatedly by reporters about what the Biden administration was doing to sway Israel from advancing its settlement plans, and he failed to outline any measures beyond raising the issue with Israeli officials.
Israel, accused of imposing a system of apartheid by leading human rights organizations like Amnesty International, receives at least $3.8bn of US aid annually.
“I’m not going to stand up here and offer a litany list of all the ways in which we can hold our Israeli partners accountable,” Patel said on Tuesday.
A White House statement describing a call between President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday did not mention any US criticism of settlements. Instead, the White House said Biden “reiterated his unwavering commitment to Israel’s security” during the call.
Israel captured the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza, in 1967. Since then, it has been building settlements housing hundreds of thousands of Israelis on the occupied lands, which Palestinians seek as part of their future state.
International law explicitly prohibits occupying powers from transferring their civilian population into occupied territories. The United Nations has called Israeli settlements a “war crime”.
“Our commitment to Israel’s security and Israel’s security concerns are ironclad,” Patel said on Tuesday. “But I will also note that we have — when we need to — very frank and honest conversations with our Israeli partners.”
The State Department also denounced recent comments by far-right Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich claiming that the Palestinian people are “an invention” of the past century.
Smotrich was speaking in Paris in front of a lecturer presenting a map of the so-called Greater Israel, an area that purports to include the occupied Palestinian territories as well as parts of Jordan and Syria. His remarks and maps drew rebukes from the Arab and international communities.
“The latest comments by Mr Smotrich, which were delivered at a podium adorned with an inaccurate and provocative map, are offensive,” the State Department’s Patel said.
“They are deeply concerning, and candidly, they’re dangerous. The Palestinians have a rich history and culture, and the United States greatly values our partnership with the Palestinian people.”
Smotrich sparked outrage and US condemnation early in March for saying that the Palestinian village of Huwara needed to be wiped out.
But the Biden administration resisted Palestinian rights advocates’ calls to revoke his visa, enabling the Israeli minister to attend a conference in Washington, DC, weeks after his remarks, which the US described as “repugnant”.
Asked on Tuesday whether Washington will take any practical measures against Smotrich, Patel said he does not have any “designations” to offer.