Israel allows return to three evacuated West Bank settlements

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -The Israeli military has approved permission for Israelis to return to three former West Bank settlements they had been banned from entering since an evacuation ordered in 2005, the defence ministry said on Wednesday.

The three settlements, Sa-nur, Ganim and Kadim, are located near the Palestinian cities of Jenin and Nablus, both of which are strongholds of armed militant groups in the northern West Bank.

A fourth settlement, Homesh, was cleared for entry last year after parliament passed an amendment to the so-called "disengagement law" of 2005. Permission from the military, which has overall control of the West Bank, was required for any return to the other three former settlements.

The military announced the move on the day three European states said they would formally recognise the State of Palestine, and as Israel's military offensive against the Palestinian militant group Hamas continued in the Gaza Strip.

It took the decision despite international pressure on Israel to curb settlement expansion in the West Bank, which Palestinians want as the core of a future independent state alongside Gaza.

"The Jewish hold on Judea and Samaria guarantees security, the application of the law to cancel disengagement will lead to the development of settlement and provide security to residents of the area," Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said in a statement, using the Biblical names for the West Bank that are often used in Israel.

The Palestinian Authority accused Israel of intransigence that was stoking regional instability, and said there could be no lasting peace until Israel recognised a Palestinian state.

"A state on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, or there is no security or peace for anyone, and the battle will continue," said spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeineh.

Last year's amendment to the disengagement law was seen as opening the way to re-establishing former West Bank settlements evacuated in 2005 under a plan overseen by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Under the plan, which was opposed by the settler movement at the time, all 21 Israeli settlements in Gaza were ordered to be evacuated. Most settlements in the West Bank were unaffected apart from the four that will now be accessible again.

More than 500,000 Jewish settlers are now estimated to be living in the West Bank, part of territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, with a further 200,000 living in East Jerusalem.

For Palestinians and most of the international community, the settlements are considered illegal. Israel disputes this, citing the Jewish people's historical, biblical and political links to the area as well as security considerations.

Despite international opposition, settlements have continued to expand strongly under successive Israeli governments.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie and Ali Sawafta; Editing by Timothy Heritage)