Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday announced the approval of a plan to build some 7,000 new housing units in the town of Efrat in Gush Etzion.

The town, which lies southwest of Jerusalem and about halfway between the capital and Hebron, is currently home to more than 11,500 people, many American immigrants. An additional 7,000 homes could potentially more than triple its population.

The move comes ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned visit to Israel next week, and amid recent statements by U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman reiterating U.S. support for Israeli sovereignty in parts of Judea and Samaria and the Jordan Valley within the framework of the Trump peace plan.

Bennett, whose term is nearing its end as a new government is expected to be sworn in next week, said in a statement released by his office that the move would allow new residents to flow into the area, “as part of reinforcing the greater Gush Etzion region.”

The defense minister posted on his Facebook page that “This morning I approved the construction of thousands of new housing units in Efrat in Gush Etzion. I instructed the defense establishment to continue to strengthen the settlement resolutely. The construction momentum in our land must not be stopped for even a moment.”

Bennett’s Yamina Party co-head former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked praised the move, tweeting, “This is an important step for Efrat and an important step in curbing Palestinian expansion in Area C.”

Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi said in response to the announcement that “today we mark an important moment in a 20-year journey during which we have dealt with a host of political and legal professionals to obtain the appropriate permits for Givat Eitam. Over the years, Efrat has become the beating heart of Gush Etzion, and we are rejoicing in the confidence expressed by the Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, in our ability to expand, to build, and to continue to become a home to new immigrants, young couples and families who seek a quality community near Jerusalem.”

The new housing will be erected on Givat Eitam on Efrat’s northern border, which abuts the city of Bethlehem, currently under Palestinian Authority control. The battle over Jewish rights to build on the site has been ongoing for 20 years, with left-wing organizations fighting to prevent Israel from developing the area.

PLO Executive committee member Hanan Ashwari said the plan was Israeli “exploitation of the COVID-19 global pandemic to advance the illegal settler project” and urged the international community to use legal, political, economic and other means to stop it.

Jordan’s Foreign Ministry tweeted a condemnation of the announcement on Wednesday, calling it a “flagrant violation of international law, international humanitarian law, Security Council resolutions and a highly dangerous unilateral step.”

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