Israel on Friday announced tenders to build 450 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank, a watchdog said, in a plan denounced by Palestinian officials as a "war crime."
Settlements watchdog organization Peace Now linked the move to Israel's March 17 parliamentary election, in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party is competing with other right-wing parties for the settler vote. He is seeking a fourth term.
"It is a pre-election grab to establish facts on the ground made by the Netanyahu government," Peace Now said in a statement.
All Israeli settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and other territories occupied since the Six Day War in 1967 are illegal under international law. Palestinians have repeatedly called for Israel to freeze settlement activities as a precondition to talks, arguing that negotiations about the borders of a potential Palestinian state were futile so long as Israel continued to infringe on Palestinian territory.
"Once again, Palestinian lives, rights and lands are being violated in the service of Israeli election campaigns," said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Wassel Abu Yusef, another PLO official, told Agence France-Presse that "what the Israelis announced is part of a wider war... against the Palestinian people. This is a war crime which should push the settlements issue to the International Criminal Court."
Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, formally submitted Palestine's application to join the International Criminal Court on Jan. 2. Two weeks later, the ICC announced a preliminary probe into possible war crimes committed by Israel in the occupied territories.
The tenders announced Friday envisage construction in a number of locations, including near the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron, and several enclaves in the highly sensitive Jerusalem area. In addition, authorities have submitted plans for the construction of 93 new homes in the East Jerusalem settlement of Gilo, anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now reported.
Peace Now said the inevitable U.S. condemnation would add to strains over Netanyahu's acceptance of a controversial invitation to address Congress in March on Iran that has sparked a bitter row with the White House.
"After embarrassing the Obama administration with the invitation to the Congress, Netanyahu adds another slap in the face of the Americans, and shows no respect to Israel's closest ally," the group said.
U.S. President Barack Obama is refusing to see Netanyahu in March, saying it would be “inappropriate”' to do so just ahead of the parliamentary election.
Daniel Seidemann of Terrestrial Jerusalem, another Israeli group that monitors settlements, said the latest plans were the first of their kind to be announced in several months and unlikely to be the last before Israeli elections.
"It's the opening of the settlement floodgates," Seidemann said. "This could hardly be an accident; it could not have taken place without Netanyahu's knowledge and consent."
Ariel Rosenberg, spokesman for Israel's Housing Ministry, said the government was simply remarketing tenders that had failed to sell when they were initially offered last year.
Seidemann, whose group particularly monitors settlement activity in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, predicted that building plans were likely to be announced soon.
"Netanyahu has a tendency, especially when he's having trouble in the polls, to do something outrageous in Jerusalem," he said. "I don't think it's over."
A poll published in The Jerusalem Post on Friday showed Likud rallying, after weeks of lagging behind the Zionist Union alliance of Labour and the centrist HaTnuah party of former justice minister Tzipi Livni.
The Post linked the poll surge to a Hezbollah strike against Israel on Wednesday that killed two Israeli soldiers, around the same time the survey was being conducted by the Panels Research organization. It gave Likud a projected 25 places in the 120-seat parliament, just ahead of the Zionist Union's 24.
But in a contradictory finding not unusual in Israeli polls, it said that 52 percent of respondents did not want Netanyahu to remain prime minister.
Al Jazeera and wire services