Israel must immediately begin withdrawing its settlers from the Palestinian territories, a UN expert told diplomats on Monday, even as the new Israeli government appeared set to strengthen the hand of the Jewish settler lobby.
Israel must "immediately and without preconditions cease the settlement activity and to initiate a process of withdrawal from the settlements," Christine Chanet, member of the UN Human Rights Committee, told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, lamenting a "rampant annexation" of Palestinian territories.
The remarks came as Israel's new housing minister on Sunday pledged that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's incoming cabinet would keep expanding Jewish settlements to the same extent as his previous government.
Housing Minister Uri Ariel, a Jewish settler and member of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, said in a television interview that, in the illegally occupied territories, "building will continue in accordance with what the government's policy has been thus far."
Using the biblical names for the territory Israel has occupied since the 1967 war, Ariel told Israel's Channel 10 television the government "will build in Judea and Samaria more or less as it has done previously. I see no reason to change it."
Ariel added that Israel planned the bulk of housing construction for more sparsely populated areas within its sovereign borders in the Negev desert to the south and Galilee region in its north.
He said construction in the West Bank was "not the main story" for his housing plans.
Netanyahu has accelerated settlement plans after Palestinians won recognition for statehood in the United Nations General Assembly in November, a move Israel opposed.
In December and January, Israel announced plans to build more than 11,000 new houses in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, almost double the 6,800 built under Netanyahu's previous administration since March 2009, figures by the settlement watch group Peace Now showed.
In Geneva, Chanet was presenting a report of a fact-finding mission commissioned by the council that deemed that the settlements were leading to Palestinians' human rights "being violated consistently and on a daily basis."
The report, published at the end of January, sparked angry reactions from Israel, which at the time slammed it and the Human Rights Council that commissioned it as "one-sided and biased."
The council's decision to dispatch the fact-finding mission last March to determine what impact the settlements are having on the rights of Palestinians so enraged the Jewish state that it immediately cut all ties with the body, and on Monday, Israel was not represented at the Geneva forum.
Israel's new hawk-dominated ruling coalition, which is to be sworn in Monday, is meanwhile expected to strengthen rather than weaken the power of the settlers.
US President Barack Obama, who has urged Israel to halt settlement on Palestinian land, is due on Wednesday to make his first visit to Israel since taking office over four years ago.
Israel has come under widespread international criticism for ramping up its construction of settlements in the Palestinian territories, notably in occupied east Jerusalem.
All Israeli settlements on Palestinian land beyond the so-called 1949 Green Line are considered illegal under international law.
Chanet, who in January suggested that Israel settling its population into occupied territory might constitute "war crimes," stressed Monday that International Criminal Court in the Hague should consider prosecuting the violations.
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