For the first time in 15 years, Israel's civil administration has officially approved the construction of settlement units in the Palestinian city of Al-Khalil.
Israel is planning to build 31 units in the illegal settlement of Beit Romano in Al-Khalil’s Old City, on a site that used to be a bus station on Shuhada Street. Next to it, an Israeli military base operates from what used to be a Palestinian school.
Shuhada Street, the Old City's main commercial artery, has been shut down by the Israeli army since 1994, forcing many shops to close. Palestinians have been banned from accessing the street, costing many their livelihoods and their homes.
"The decision [to build new settler housing] challenges the international community and violates international laws and agreements," Issa Amro, a spokesperson for the Youth Against Settlements activist group in Al-Khalil, told Al Jazeera.
"This will make life even more unbearable for Palestinians living in the Old City, who are already suffering from checkpoints, closures and repeated attacks from Jewish settlers and the Israeli army."
Palestinians can appeal the plan, which could postpone the illegal construction of the settlement units.
Tayseer abu-Sneneh, the mayor of the city, told Al Jazeera that the decision constituted "blatant aggression on the property of Al-Khalil’s municipality.”
"We will challenge this decision legally, and will apply political pressure, as well," he said.
Ugly face of Israeli occupation
The settlement in Al-Khalil "represents the occupation in its most ugly" form, added Hagit Ofran of Peace Now.
"The permits approved today would increase the number of settlers in Al-Khalil by 20 per cent … While doing everything in his power to please a small group of settlers, [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is… crushing basic values of human rights and dignity."
Speaking from Al-Khalil, Al Jazeera's Harry Fawcett said that in the next couple of days, further approvals of settler units were expected throughout the occupied West Bank – up to 3,800 units.
"That would make a total of 6,500 settlement units so far this year," he said. "If you compare that to previous years, in 2015, there were fewer than 2,000 units, and in 2016 there were 2,700."
Last week, the United States expressed some concern over Israeli settlements, with a White House official noting, "The [Trump] administration has made it clear that unrestrained settlement activity does not advance the prospect for peace.”
Al-Khalil, the largest city in the occupied West Bank, was divided into two areas and forms of control, referred to as H1 and H2, in 1997.
H1 is under the control of the Palestinian Authority government and home to around 200,000 Palestinians. H2, or the Old City, has a Palestinian population of 35,000, along with 700 Jewish settlers.
The settlers, who live under Israeli civil law, reside in four illegal settlements in the heart of the Old City and are heavily guarded and protected by the Israeli army.
Palestinians in H2 live under military control and face measures that heavily affect their freedom of movement, including dozens of checkpoints, curfews and restrictions on pedestrian and vehicular movement.
In July, more than 100 settlers took over a Palestinian home in the heart of the Old City, which is home to the Ibrahimi Mosque, also known as the Cave of the Patriarchs.
Israel has built hundreds of illegal settlements and outposts throughout the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, with a population of 800,000 settlers.
The international community considers the settlements illegal and in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that is it unlawful for an occupying power to transfer parts of its population into the territory it occupies.