Israel approves plan to double settler population in Golan Heights

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Israel's government on Sunday approved a $317 million plan to double the Jewish settler population in the Golan Heights, 40 years after it annexed the territory captured from Syria.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's cabinet voted in favour of the plan that aims to build 7,300 settler homes in the region over a five-year period, during a meeting held at the Mevo Hama community in the Golan.

It calls for 1 billion Israeli shekels to be spent on housing, infrastructure and other projects with the goal of attracting roughly 23,000 new Jewish settlers to the area, seized during the 1967 Six Day War.

"Our goal today is to double the population of the Golan Heights," the right-wing Bennett said ahead of the meeting.

He was forced to leave the meeting after his 14-year-old daughter tested positive for the coronavirus, putting him into isolation, but a vote on the programme went ahead after a delay.

Around 25,000 Israeli settlers live in the Golan Heights, along with about 23,000 Druze, who remained on the land after Israel seized it.

Israel annexed the territory on December 14, 1981, in a move not recognised by most of the international community.

Former US president Donald Trump, widely viewed as pro-Israeli, granted US recognition to Israeli sovereignty over the Golan in 2019.

"The Golan Heights are Israeli. This is self-evident," Bennett said.

"The fact that the Trump administration recognised this, and the fact that the (President Joe) Biden administration has made it clear that there has been no change in this policy, are also important."

Shortly after Biden took office in January, his Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested there were legal questions surrounding Trump's move, which Syria condemned as a "flagrant violation" of its sovereignty.

But Blinken indicated there was no thought of reversing course, especially with the Syrian civil war continuing.

Bennett claimed that after a decade of conflict in Syria, international calls to restore Syrian control of the Golan were muted.

"Every knowledgeable person in the world understands that it is preferable to have Israeli heights that are quiet, flourishing and green as opposed to the alternative," he said.

'National consensus'

Bennett leads an ideologically disparate eight-party coalition that counts on support from left-wingers.

Some in his cabinet, notably from the dovish Meretz party, have vocally opposed plans to expand settlements in the West Bank, a Palestinian territory also occupied by Israel since 1967.

Roughly 475,000 settlers now live in the West Bank in communities widely regarded as illegal under international law.

Bennett is a the former head of a settler lobbying council who opposes Palestinian statehood.

But he argued that unity on the Golan plan demonstrated that Israeli control of the area was a matter of "national consensus."

"The Golan Heights, the need to strengthen, cultivate and live in it, is certainly a principle that unites everyone here," he said.

Israel and Syria, which are still technically at war, are separated by a de facto border at the Golan Heights.

(AFP)

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