Israel has approved a plan to build 238 new homes for Jewish settlers in Arab East Jerusalem, marking the first large-scale Israeli settlement expansion since the Jewish state lifted its temporary restrictions on constructions in occupied land.
AFP - Israel has unveiled plans for 238 new homes for Jewish settlers in Arab east Jerusalem, reports said on Friday, in a move which drew an angry response from the Palestinians.
The plans for new housing units in the settlement neighbourhoods of Pisgat Zeev and Ramot were approved late on Thursday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Ynet news website said, in a decision likely to complicate US attempts to revive Middle East peace talks.
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat said the move proved Israel was intent on "killing" every opportunity to revive peace talks between the two sides.
"We call upon the US administration to hold the Israeli government responsible for the collapse of the negotiations and the peace process as a result of this government's insistence on killing every opportunity for resuming negotiations," he said.
Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians are facing imminent collapse in the face of a row about settlement building on occupied land, which restarted on September 26 after temporary restrictions on building expired.
Although the 10-month freeze did not cover construction in east Jerusalem, Netanyahu had quietly avoided signing off on any such projects in order to avoid the political fallout, Ynet said.
Settlement watchdog Peace Now said it was the first time such a plan had been approved since March, when Israel gave the green light to plans for the construction of 1,600 new settler homes in east Jerusalem during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden, prompting a major crisis with Washington.
The group said the announcement betrayed a desire within the Israeli government to undermine the chances of salvaging the peace talks with the Palestinians.
"The fact is that someone -- either the housing minister or the prime minister -- is trying to make a point: they want to make it harder on peace efforts," Peace Now's Hagit Ofran told AFP.
"Such a decision is going to be a problem for the continuation of the talks and this is exactly what they were trying to achieve."
The housing ministry did not respond to an AFP request to confirm the proposals, and Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev said he could not confirm or deny the report as he was "not familiar" with any such plans.
However, senior government officials quoted by the top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper said Netanyahu not only knew about the move but had coordinated it in advance with Washington.
"It is a symbolic decision which, even so, took a long time to make," a senior cabinet minister told the paper, saying the US administration had urged Netanyahu to delay the decision.
"The Americans pressured Netanyahu to wait with it and delayed the decision by several weeks. We don't want to quarrel with them and break the rules of the game," he said, predicting Washington would issue only a "weak condemnation" of the proposals.
But Peace Now's Ofran suggested the move could also be interpreted as some kind of quid pro quo for the settler lobby ahead of a decision to reimpose a freeze on construction in the West Bank.
"It could be that Netanyahu knows that he will have to reimpose the freeze in the West Bank and needs to give something to the settlers," she said, saying the invitation to tender for the planned homes was likely to be issued in the coming months.
Israel seized Arab east Jerusalem in the Six Day War of 1967 and annexed it shortly afterwards in a move not recognised by the international community or the Palestinians, who consider it the capital of their promised state.
The Palestinians see the settlements as a major threat to the establishment of a viable state, and they view the freezing of settlement activity as a crucial test of Israel's intentions.
Date created : 2010-10-15