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Israel just approved hundreds of new settlement homes in East Jerusalem

A picture taken on January 17, 2017, shows new apartments under construction in the Israeli settlement of Har Homa, situated in East Jerusalem, and a view of the Arab neighborhood of Umm Tuba in the background. 
THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

Early Sunday morning, Israel approved building permits for nearly 600 new homes in three settlements in East Jerusalem — just two days after Donald Trump took his oath of office. A few hours later, the Israeli news outlet Haaretz reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had informed the members of his inner security cabinet that he decided to lift all restrictions on Israeli construction in East Jerusalem.

Back in December, the Obama administration took the unprecedented step of allowing an extremely controversial UN resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to pass, sparking a major diplomatic fight with Israel. But though he was outraged, Netanyahu ordered the Jerusalem municipality to wait on approving new housing units in an attempt to avoid further inflaming US-Israeli relations.

That is, to wait until Trump took office.

Meir Turgeman, the chair of the municipality's Planning and Building committee, told Israel Radio on Sunday, "I was told to wait until Trump takes office because he has no problem with building in Jerusalem," Turgeman said, adding there were hundreds more units waiting for approval.

Trump has broken with longstanding US policy on settlements

For nearly half a century, American presidents of both parties have joined the rest of the international community in condemning Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands and labelling them one of the main obstacles to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

But Trump has completely upended that longstanding policy. He publicly slammed the Obama administration for its decision to abstain on the UN settlement vote. His pick to be the next ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is staunchly pro-settlement, as is Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law.

The Times of Israel reports that Friedman has raised millions of dollars for the West Bank settlement of Beit El. They also note that “the foundation run by the family of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has also supported Beit El, and Trump himself has donated money to a Jewish seminary in the settlement through his foundation, tax records show.”

Trump has also promised to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a highly controversial and symbolic move the US Congress supports but every previous US president has avoided actually doing out of concern for the potential impact it could have on the future of the peace process.

Trump even invited three prominent leaders of Israel’s settler movement to his inauguration ceremony and ball — a highly symbolic gesture meant to send a clear signal that he’s serious about his stance on Israel, and that things really are going to change under his administration.

Sunday’s announcements on new settlement construction in East Jerusalem suggest that his message has come through loud and clear.