GENEVA: Expanding Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories constitutes “a war crime” and risks eliminating “any practical possibility” of a viable Palestinian state, the United Nations rights chief warned on Friday.

Volker Turk said there had been a drastic acceleration in Israel’s illegal settlement building in the occupied West Bank, at the same time as it wages a relentless war in the Palestinian territory of Gaza.

The UN high commissioner for human rights said creating and expanding settlements amounted to the transfer by Israel of its own civilian population into occupied territories.

“Such transfers amount to a war crime that may engage the individual criminal responsibility of those involved,” he said in a report to the UN Human Rights Council.

Reported Israeli plans to build another 3,476 settler homes in the West Bank colonies of Maale Adumim, Efrat and Kedar flew “in the face of international law,” he said.

Israel seized the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

It is illegal under international law for Israel to establish settlements in these Palestinian territories.

Despite opposition abroad, Israel has in recent decades build dozens of settlements across the West Bank.

They are now home to more than 490,000 Israelis, living in the same territory as around three million Palestinians.

Israel gave the go-ahead for the homes fewer than two weeks after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said any settlement expansion would be “counterproductive to reaching enduring peace” with the Palestinians.

Turk said that during the period covered by his report — November 1, 2022, to October 31, 2023 — some 24,300 housing units were added to existing Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

That marks the largest number on record since monitoring began in 2017;

It includes nearly 9,700 units in East Jerusalem, the UN rights office said.

Turk’s report found that the Israeli government’s policies “appear aligned, to an unprecedented extent, with the goals of the Israeli settler movement to expand long-term control over the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and to steadily integrate this occupied territory into the State of Israel.”

At the same time, Palestinians are being forced from their homes by Israeli settler and state violence, it said.

It also pointed to forced evictions, non-issuance of building permits, home demolitions and movement restrictions imposed on Palestinians.

“Settler violence and settlement-related violations have reached shocking new levels, and risk eliminating any practical possibility of establishing a viable Palestinian state,” Turk warned.

His report found there had been 602 settler attacks against Palestinians just since October 7, when Hamas’s attack inside Israel, leading to war in Gaza.

The UN rights office said it had documented nine Palestinians killed by settlers using firearms, and another 396 killed by Israeli security forces.

Another two were killed by either Israeli security forces or settlers.

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