The United Nations has blasted Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise to annex nearly a third of the occupied West Bank, calling it “devastating” to peace with the Palestinians, as world leaders warned it would only spark more conflict in the war-torn region.
Just a week before elections, Mr Netanyahu pledged to enforce Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and north Dead Sea area if he is re-elected.
The embattled leader is facing stiff competition in the polls, where he is battling to secure a record fifth term in office under the shadow of three possible corruption trials.
Just hours after the prime minister made his controversial promise, militants in Gaza fired rockets at Ashdod, a port city. Mr Netanyahu was holding a campaign rally at the time and was forced to flee the stage.
Stephane Dujarric, a UN spokesperson, said that any Israeli move to impose its administration over the Palestinian territory would be illegal under international law.
“Such a prospect would be devastating to the potential of reviving negotiations, regional peace, and the very essence of a two-state solution,” he added.
The plan sparked fury among Palestinian and Arab leaders, with the Arab League condemning Mr Netanyahu’s remarks as “Israeli aggression” that, if carried out, amounts to “an Israeli declaration for the end of the peace process”.
Saudi Arabia described the election promise as a “blatant violation” of international law and an “extremely dangerous escalation”.
Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, echoed Riyadh’s strong condemnation, saying the move would fan the flames of conflict around the region.
Turkey, meanwhile, said the “illegal, unlawful and aggressive” move proved Israel was a “racist apartheid state”.
It also sparked uproar in the UK. Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, said Mr Netanyahu was taking the opportunity to “kill all hopes of a two-state solution” while Labour MP Richard Burden urged the British parliament to “stand up” and implement a 2014 resolution to recognise the state of Palestine.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 war and has long said it intends to maintain military control there under any peace agreement with the Palestinians.
The Jordan Valley stretches from the Dead Sea in the south to the Israeli city of Beit Shean in the north and accounts for nearly 30 per cent of the territory in the occupied West Bank.
Over 65,000 Palestinians and 11,000 Israeli settlers are believed to live there.
Mr Netanyahu’s map of the areas he wants to annex includes most of the eastern edge of the West Bank with a tiny pocket of land left for the Palestinians, connected only to other Palestinian areas and neighbouring Jordan via thin corridors of land.
He also hinted he would have the support of US President Donald Trump, who earlier this year controversially recognised Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan, which it captured from Syria during the war in 1967.
The Palestinians still hope for a future state that would encompass the entire West Bank.
Hanan Ashrawi, a leading member of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, called the pledge “a declaration of war against the Palestinian people’s rights as well as the very foundations of the international rules-based order”.
Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator for the Palestinians who lives in the Jordan Valley, said it would amount to a war crime and “bury” any chance of peace.
Just hours after Mr Netanyahu’s speech, the Israeli army said militants in Gaza fired two rockets into southern Israel, sending Mr Netanyahu to a bomb shelter while he was holding a rally there.
“If Hamas shoots at us in the middle of a Likud event, they probably don’t want us here,” he later told the crowds when he returned to finish his speech.
Israel responded by hitting 15 targets in Gaza, the Israeli army reported.
Mr Netanyahu’s decision to annex parts of the West Bank was welcomed by many right-wing supporters in Israel but panned by his election rivals.
Benny Gantz, the country’s former army chief who heads the Blue and White Party, called it an “empty promise”.
He said: “Netanyahu activated the red alert system as a spin with the aim of creating a distraction from the children in the south who are sleeping in their safe rooms. In a week from now, we will replace this spin with actions and deeds.”