Israel declared about 1,000 acres of land in the West Bank to be owned by the Israeli state yesterday, in a move some Palestinian officials fear will cause friction after the recent conflict in Gaza.
The announcement concerning land south of Bethlehem, inside what Israelis call the Etzion bloc of settlements, comes after Israel determined the land was not cultivated with enough intensity for the Palestinians to maintain their ownership rights.
Signs have already been posted on the land by military administrators saying "state land - no trespassing". Dror Etkes, head of the Kerem Navot NGO which specialises in West Bank land issues, said: "There is enough territory for a very big settlement with thousands of units."
Danny Dayan, a settler leader, denied that rightful owners would be dispossessed, stressing that people with a claim can lodge an appeal within 45 days.
Other settler leaders praised the land declaration as an appropriate response to the murder of three Israeli teens. "The goal of the murderers of the three youths was to sow fear and disrupt our living routine and our answer is strengthening settlement and building," Davidi Perl, head of the local settlements council, said.
In Israel's view, building in the area would not constitute a new settlement because the site is officially designated a neighbourhood of an existing one, Alon Shvut.
Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called on Israel to cancel the appropriation: "This decision will lead to more instability. This will only inflame the situation after the war in Gaza."
The Palestine Liberation Organisation spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi claimed that landowners in the villages of Surif, Husan, al-Jabaa and in Bethlehem would lose their property: "Israel is single-handedly sabotaging any chance for peace."
The Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said: "This decision will in no way inhibit moving forward to two states for two peoples."