• AFP-JIJI

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Israel’s defense minister on Wednesday said he aimed to boost the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank to 1 million within a decade, from around 400,000 at present.

Naftali Bennett, a hawk who draws much of his support from settlers, is leading his New Right party to elections in March.

He was speaking at a Jerusalem congress on Washington’s November policy shift stating that it no longer considers Israeli settlements illegal, alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. ambassador David Friedman

“Our aim is that within a decade a million Israeli citizens will live in Judaea and Samaria,” Bennett said, using the biblical term for the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

He challenged use of the term “occupied.

“A people cannot be an occupier in its (own) land,” Bennett said. Netanyahu made the same point more bluntly.

“We are not occupiers in our homeland, we are not occupiers in our own land, we are not like the Belgians in the Congo,” he said.

Friedman, who is also Jewish and a strong supporter of settlements, said the new U.S. policy clearly states that “Israelis, Jews have the right to live in Judaea and Samaria.”

Friedman and Bennet’s comments drew swift condemnation from the Palestinian Authority.

The PA foreign ministry described them as “racist” and “reflecting the Jewish colonial nature of the deal of the century” — a reference to U.S. President Donald Trump’s so-far undisclosed peace plan.

It said their statements were “official confessions of their involvement in the crime of settlement and the confiscation of Palestinian land.

On Nov. 18, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States no longer considers Israeli settlements to be “inconsistent with international law.

Previously U.S. policy was based, at least in theory, on a legal opinion issued by the State Department in 1978 that said that establishing settlements in Palestinian territories captured a decade earlier by Israel went against international law.

The Fourth Geneva Convention on the laws of war explicitly forbids moving civilians into occupied territories.

The about-turn brought stiff international and Palestinian criticism.

The United Nations and European Union said the decision would not change the reality that the settlements were illegal, while the Arab League condemned Washington’s unilateral move.

More than 600,000 Israelis live in settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, alongside more than 3 million Palestinians.

Israel seized control of the territories, seen as pivotal parts of any future Palestinian state, in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Shortly after taking up his post in November Bennett announced a plan to double the number of settlers in the flash-point West Bank city of Hebron.

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