Israel moving to seize West Bank farmland: officials

Some 60 percent of the West Bank is under full Israeli control and more than 500,000 Israeli settlers live in the territory and east Jerusalem (AFP Photo/Samuel Aranda)

Jericho (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Israel is moving to declare 150 hectares in the occupied West Bank as state land in what would be the largest such seizure since 2014, officials and media reports said Wednesday.

If approved, the move is likely to draw international condemnation in line with previous seizures. Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat visited the site Wednesday and said the land was being stolen from the Palestinians.

The farmland is located in the Jordan Valley south of Jericho and, according to settlement watchdog Peace Now, would mark the biggest declaration since a seizure of 400 hectares in 2014.

The Israeli defence ministry unit that oversees civilian affairs in the West Bank, known as COGAT, said in a statement that "the lands are in final stages to be declared as state lands".

It did not provide further details, including who was considered the current owner. Peace Now said the land had been taken over by Israeli settlers years ago for farming.

Israeli media reported that the land amounted to 150 hectares (370 acres) and said it was north of the Israeli settlement of Almog.

Israel has previously used a law that dates back to the Ottoman era to declare property that has not been used as state land, rights groups say, though it was not clear if the same law would be invoked in this case.

Earlier seizures have been harshly criticised by Palestinians, rights groups and much of the international community.

Such moves erode the territory Palestinians see as part of their future state, further complicating peace efforts.

"The government's decision is another step on the way to destroying the possibility for a two-state solution," Peace Now said in a statement.

Erekat, speaking to journalists at the site, called the seizure theft.

"As you see, they call it a security area but you don't see a single security thing here," said Erekat, also secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

"And if you go between here and 70 kilometres (45 miles) straight you will see nothing but farms of grapes, palm trees, vegetables, stealing the water from Palestinians, the land from Palestinians."

Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon's office declined comment.

- Diplomatic pressure -

Israel faced international condemnation after the 2014 seizure near Bethlehem in the area of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc.

The move followed the killing of three Israeli teenagers snatched from a roadside in the same area.

Netanyahu's government has faced pressure from settlers and rightwing members of his cabinet over a wave of Palestinian knife, gun and car-ramming attacks that erupted in October.

The fatal stabbing of an Israeli woman at the entrance to her home in a West Bank settlement on Sunday, allegedly by a Palestinian teenager, drew Israeli outrage and calls for action.

The seizure would come at a time of increased attention to Israeli settlements and its policies in the West Bank.

Some 60 percent of the West Bank is under full Israeli control and more than 500,000 Israeli settlers live in the territory and east Jerusalem.

US ambassador Dan Shapiro said this week that "we are concerned and perplexed by Israel's strategy on settlements."

The European Union has also strongly opposed Israeli settlement activity and has decided to label products imported from those areas.

EU foreign ministers reiterated in a statement Monday that the settlements were "illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible."

Ministers also agreed that the EU would ensure that all agreements with Israel should "unequivocally and explicitly" state that they did not apply to the occupied territories.

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