Israel approves new parcel of West Bank land for settlement

FILE PHOTO: Handing over ceremony for the new Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich on Friday declared 800 hectares in the occupied West Bank as state land, in a move that will facilitate the use of the ground for settlement building.

The announcement, on the day U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Israel for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, underlined the government's determination to press ahead with settlement building in the West Bank, despite growing international opposition.

Palestinian authorities condemned the move.

"While there are those in Israel and in the world who seek to undermine our right to Judea and Samaria and the country in general, we promote settlement through hard work and in a strategic manner all over the country," Smotrich said, using Biblical names for the area of the West Bank that are commonly employed in Israel.

The denomination of the 1,976 acres of land in the Jordan Valley as state land follows a similar designation of 300 hectares (740 acres) in the Maale Adumim area of the West Bank, which the Palestinians want as the core of a future independent state.

The United States said last month Israel's expansion of settlements in West Bank was inconsistent with international law, signalling a return to long-standing U.S. policy that had been reversed by the previous administration of Donald Trump.

The change brought the United States back into line with most of the world, which considers the settlements built on territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war to be illegal. Israel itself disputes this view, citing the Jewish people's historical and Biblical ties to the land.

The Palestinians say the expansion of settlements across the West Bank is part of a deliberate Israeli policy to undermine its ambition of creating an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the latest move was "a continuation of the extermination and displacement of our people from their homeland".

"The international failure to protect our people is complicity and cover for Israel's ongoing evasion of punishment," it added.

Smotrich, the influential leader of one of the hard-right pro-settler parties in Netanyahu's coalition, himself lives in a settlement and has consistently backed settlement building.

International pressure for a resumption of efforts to reach a two state solution, with an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, has grown amid efforts to end the nearly six month war in Gaza.

Little progress has been made on achieving Palestinian statehood since the signing of the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s. Among the obstacles impeding it are expanding Israeli settlements.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Alison Williams)