JERUSALEM - Israel on Monday approved permits for 31 settler homes in Hebron, the first such green light for the flashpoint West Bank city since 2002 and part of a major increase in settlement activity, an NGO said.

An Israeli committee approved construction permits for the 31 units, Anat Ben Nun of the Peace Now NGO told AFP, in a move harshly condemned by Palestinians.

Several hundred Israeli settlers live in the heart of Hebron under heavy military guard among some 200,000 Palestinians. The approvals are part of nearly 4,000 settler home plans to be advanced in the occupied West Bank under a push to greatly boost settlement growth, an Israeli official has said. Peace Now, which closely monitors settlement construction, said a planning council meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday is expected to have more than 2,000 units on the agenda.

The Hebron units are to be built on Shuhada Street, formerly an important market street leading to a holy site where the biblical Abraham is believed to have been buried.

The street is now largely closed off to Palestinians.

Peace Now said in a statement that the Hebron settlement represented “the occupation in its most ugly” form.

“In order to protect a small group of settlers, tens of thousands of Palestinians had been forced to move from their homes, and roads and shops had been closed,” it said.

“The permits approved today would increase the number of settlers in Hebron by 20 percent, and they required significant legal acrobatics that might not stand the test of the High Court of Justice.”

Jews living in Hebron describe the settlement homes in the city as an extension of a history of 4,000 years of Jewish presence there.

Settlement building in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem is considered illegal under international law.

It is also seen as a major obstacle to peace as the settlements are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government leans heavily on settlers and their supporters to maintain its thin parliamentary majority.

Israel faced heavy criticism of settlement construction from US president Barack Obama’s administration, but that has not been the case with his successor Donald Trump.

Israeli officials say a total of some 12,000 housing units will be given various stages of approval this year, four times the amount in 2016.

Hebron is holy to both Muslims and Jews, with Old Testament figures including Abraham believed to be buried there.

The 1994 massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron by Israeli-American Baruch Goldstein led to an agreement three years later giving the Palestinian Authority control over 80 percent of the city.

The settlers and about 30,000 Palestinians living adjacent to them fall under Israeli military rule.

Last month, Israel gave the settlers there the authority to manage their own municipal affairs in what critics denounced as reminiscent of “apartheid”.

The land where the new Hebron units are to be built was seized by Israel for military purposes in the 1980s, Peace Now said.

“Instead of expelling settlers and reopening the closed streets and shops, they are confiscating a very vital and important area that used to be the main bus station in the heart of Hebron,” Palestinian activist Issa Amro, head of the Hebron-based Youth Against Settlements group, told AFP.

About 430,000 Israeli settlers live among 2.6 million Palestinians in the West Bank, occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.