BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Israeli authorities on Sunday announced the confiscation of around 4,000 dunums (1,000 acres) of private Palestinian land south of Bethlehem in the southern West Bank.
Palestinian owners of the land were given 45 days to submit formal objections to the announcement in Israeli courts, otherwise all confiscated lands would automatically become Israeli government property.
Mayor of the nearby Palestinian town of Surif Muhammad Ghuneimat told Ma'an that Israeli forces posted signs in private olive tree orchards in the area warning that they have been confiscated by the Israeli government.
Ghuneimat added that the confiscated fields belonged to Palestinians from the towns of Surif, Husan, al-Jabaa and Bethlehem.
The announcement reportedly came as a response by Israeli political authorities in response to the abduction and killing of three Israeli teens in the area near Gush Etzion settlement bloc in June.
Israel has named three Palestinians from the southern West Bank city of Hebron as being behind the murders, without providing evidence.
Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now expressed alarm at the move.
"As far as we know, this declaration is unprecedented in its scope since the 1980s and can dramatically change the reality in the Gush Etzion and the Bethlehem areas," it said in a statement.
"Peace Now views this declaration as proof that Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu does not aspire for a new 'Diplomatic Horizon,' but rather he continues to put obstacles to the two-state vision and promote a one-state solution.
"By declaring another 4,000 dunams as state land, the Israeli government stabs (Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas) and the moderate Palestinian forces in the back, proving again that violence delivers Israeli concessions while non-violence results in settlement expansion," it said.
Peace Now official Hagit Ofran told AFP that the legal basis for such land confiscation was an 1858 ruling by the region's Ottoman rulers.
Part of the lands being confiscated are already home to the illegal Jewish settlement of Gvaot, part of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc.
Local settlers moved into the area and took over Palestinian land with military support more than a decade ago, but have been living in an area technically unrecognized by Israeli authorities despite their armed protection.
The Etzion settlements council welcomed Sunday's announcement, saying in a statement that it "paves the way for the new city of Gevaot."
"The goal of the murderers of those three youths was to sow fear among us, to disrupt our daily lives and to call into doubt our right to the land," it said. "Our response is to strengthen settlement."
Since mid-June, Israeli authorities have announced more than 1,472 new settlement homes, slated to house around 6,000 Jewish settlers, across the West Bank, including around Bethlehem.
Israeli settlements are generally built on the hills in and around Palestinian towns and villages, and critics charge they are strategically located so as to encircle them and make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible.
AFP contributed to this report.