JERUSALEM -- Israel advanced plans for the construction of more than 4,000 settler homes in the occupied West Bank on Thursday, a rights group said, a day after the military demolished homes in an area where hundreds of Palestinians face the threat of expulsion.
It was an illustration of Israel's policies in the territory it has occupied for nearly 55 years. Critics, including three major human rights groups, say those policies amount to apartheid, a charge Israel rejects as an attack on its very legitimacy.
Hagit Ofran, an expert at the anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now, told reporters that a military planning body approved 4,427 housing units at a meeting on Thursday that she attended. "The state of Israel took another stumble toward the abyss and further deepened the occupation," she tweeted.
Spokespeople for the Israeli government and the military body in charge of civilian affairs in the West Bank did not respond to requests for comment.
The White House opposes settlement construction and views it as an obstacle to any eventual peace agreement with the Palestinians.
There was no immediate comment from the administration on Thursday's decision. But last week, when the first reports emerged of the impending settlement approval, State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter reiterated that the U.S. "strongly" opposes settlement expansion.
U.N. Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland condemned the announcement, calling the settlements a "major obstacle to peace" that undermines hopes for a two-state solution.
"Continued settlement expansion further entrenches the occupation, encroaches upon Palestinian land and natural resources, and hampers the free movement of the Palestinian population," he said.
Most of the international community considers the settlements illegal and supports a two-state solution to the conflict. Israel says Palestinian leaders have rejected proposals by previous governments that would have given them a state.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who once led the main settler organization, is opposed to Palestinian statehood, but his government has taken steps to improve economic conditions for Palestinians.
On Wednesday, Israeli troops demolished at least 18 buildings and structures in the West Bank following a Supreme Court decision that would force at least 1,000 Palestinians out of an area Israel designated as a firing zone in the early 1980s.
B'Tselem, another Israeli rights group, said 12 residential buildings were among the structures that were demolished, in villages in the arid hills south of the West Bank city of Hebron.
Residents of the Masafer Yatta say they have been living in the region, herding animals and practicing traditional desert agriculture for decades, long before Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 war. The Supreme Court sided with the military, which says there were no permanent structures in the area before it was designated a training zone.
Israel has built more than 130 settlements across the West Bank that today are home to nearly 500,000 settlers, who have Israeli citizenship. Nearly 3 million Palestinians live in the territory under open-ended Israeli military rule. The Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule over parts of the West Bank and cooperates with Israel on security matters.
Information for this article was contributed by Ilan Ben Zion of The Associated Press.