Israel approved the construction of 112 new settlement homes in the occupied West Bank in line with a partial moratorium on construction as US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in the region in a bid to jump-start peace talks.
AFP - Israel has given the green light for the building of 112 new homes in a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank despite a partial moratorium on such construction, a minister said on Monday.
The expansion came to light as US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in the region a day after the Palestinians agreed to indirect talks with Israel while warning that further settlement growth threatened the peace process.
Israeli Environment Minister Gilad Erdan said the project in the Beitar Illit settlement near Bethlehem was an exception to a partial halt of settlement activity announced in November.
"At the end of last year, the government decided to freeze construction, but this decision provided for exceptions in cases of safety problems for infrastructure projects started before the freeze," he said.
"Such is the case in Beitar Illit," he told army radio.
Israel's continued expansion of settlements is one of the biggest obstacles to the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians, now suspended for more than a year despite months of US-led shuttle diplomacy.
The Palestinians condemned the latest move and called on the United States to intervene to halt settlement activity in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
"This was the first item on the president's agenda," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said after a meeting between US Middle East envoy George Mitchell and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank.
"The president said this cannot stand. We cannot tolerate that each time we have discussions on peace-making the Israeli government tenders more settlements, more incursions, more provocations," Erakat said.
The Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now also slammed the new project, saying it would "widen the gap with the Palestinians and the two-state solution, which risks becoming obsolete."
The new project was revealed a day after the Palestinians grudgingly agreed to four months of indirect peace negotiations with Israel but warned that the US-brokered process would collapse if it continued expanding settlements.
It also came as Biden made his first visit to the region since assuming office. Mitchell, who has been leading US efforts to revive the peace process, is meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the latest of several regional trips.
Biden stressed ahead of his trip that relaunching Middle East peace talks was in the interests of Israel, the Palestinians and the United States.
"We call on both sides not to take unilateral steps that are liable to destroy trust and sabotage efforts to renew the talks," he said in an interview published on Monday by Israel's mass-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper.
The Palestinians insist they will only return to direct talks if Israel agrees to completely freeze settlement construction in the West Bank, including annexed Arab east Jerusalem.
The United States initially backed that demand, but has since called on both sides to immediately return to negotiations while routinely criticising Israeli settlement activity in line with longstanding policy.
Erdan played down the chances of a strong US reaction to the latest settlement boost and blamed the Palestinians for stalling peace efforts.
"Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden know that the key is that the prime minister (Benjamin Netanyahu) is ready at any moment to engage in direct negotiations," he said.
"However, (Palestinian president) Mahmud Abbas wants to limit the indirect negotiations to four months after months of setting unprecedented conditions for accepting dialogue, and this is not the way to discuss peace."
Israel announced a 10-month moratorium on new building permits for settler homes in the West Bank in November but it excludes east Jerusalem, public buildings and works already under way.
Around a half million Israelis live in more than 120 settlements scattered across the West Bank, including east Jerusalem. The international community considers all the settlements illegal.
Date created : 2010-03-08