Peace Now official Hagit Ofran said that the approval for new settlements came to light after the group petitioned Israel's Supreme Court in March to halt construction of an initial 50 housing units, prompting the court to request a government response. "In reply... the defence ministry informed us that it had last month approved a plan to build 119 housing units, including the 50 already under construction " she told AFP.
An unrelated government decision last month to speed up settlement building in response to Palestine joining UNESCO brought harsh criticism from Washington, the United Nations and European Union. Ofran said the latest spurt of building in Shilo, in the northern West Bank, started a year ago, initially without the necessary government permits.
A defence ministry spokesman told AFP that construction licences had been given retroactively for "units already under construction" while those still in the planning stage would require separate permits in order for work to begin.
Shilo currently has 195 permanent residences and a number of mobile homes. More than 310,000 Israelis live in settlements in the occupied West Bank and the number is constantly growing.
Another 200,000 live in a dozen settlement neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel in 1967 and annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.
The international community considers all settlements in territories occupied by Israel since June 1967 are illegal, whether or not approved by its government.