JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel gave final approval on Wednesday for plans to build 300 new homes in a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, announcing the move as it carried out a court demolition order against two vacant apartment blocks in the same enclave.
Dozens of Jewish settlers have gathered over the past several days at Beit El settlement to protest against the demolition. Israel's Supreme Court ruled the two partially built blocks had been constructed illegally on Palestinian-owned land.
Live television footage from Beit El showed settlers, who had scuffled earlier with police at the site, watching an excavator tear into the buildings, but not intervening.
As payback for the demolition, ultra-nationalists in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition had urged him to press ahead with a separate 300-home project slated for a different tract of land in the settlement.
A statement issued by the Prime Minister's Office said the "immediate construction of 300 housing units" had been approved for another site in Beit El. The settlement of more than 6,000 is near the Palestinian West Bank city of Ramallah.
In addition, the statement said, planning approval was granted for the building of 413 homes in the East Jerusalem area.
Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem, territory Palestinians seek for a state of their own, in the 1967 Middle East war. Most countries consider the settlements that Israel has built in occupied land as illegal.
The United States said it was "deeply concerned" about Israel's decision to build new homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
"Settlement expansion threatens the two-state solution and calls into question Israel’s commitment to a negotiated resolution to the conflict," the State Department said in a statement.
Settler leaders have been lobbying Netanyahu over the past few weeks to step up housing construction, seen internationally and by Palestinians as an obstacle to their aspiration for statehood.
It is possible that both new building programs could also face court challenges, following the ruling on the demolished blocks.
A furious lawmaker for the pro-settler Jewish Home party suggested in a televised interview that the Israeli high court itself ought to be bulldozed.
Netanyahu condemned lawmaker Moti Yogev's comment, issuing a statement that he "completely rejects the remarks against the Supreme Court" and that Israel as a democracy was committed to abiding by its decisions.
Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Alison Williams and Eric Beech