US, Palestinians deplore plans for new Jerusalem homes
The US said on Monday it was "deeply disappointed" by Israel's plan to build 1,300 new homes in occupied East Jerusalem, as Palestinian leaders accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of seeking to sabotage stalled peace talks.
AFP - Israel's approval of more than 1,300 new homes in occupied east Jerusalem on Monday sparked a furious reaction from the Palestinians who accused Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu of sabotaging peace talks.
The plans, announced as the Israeli prime minister was in the United States to discuss a revival of peace talks with the Americans, prompted a furious reaction from the chief Palestinian negotiator.
"We thought that Netanyahu was going to the United States to stop settlement activity and restart negotiations but it is clear to us that he is determined to destroy the talks," Saeb Erakat told AFP.
"He has shut all the doors to negotiations and we hold him responsible for destroying them."
Direct peace talks which began in early September quickly ran aground when an Israeli moratorium on West Bank settlement construction expired six weeks ago, prompting the Palestinians to freeze ties until Israel reimposes the ban.
Although the 10-month moratorium did not cover building projects in east Jerusalem, Israel has quietly held off from approving projects there in order to avoid political fallout.
Peace Now's Hagit Ofran said the government had published three plans for public review, which includes 1,025 new housing units in Har Homa, a particularly contentious settlement neighbourhood on Jerusalem's southern outskirts, and another 320 units in the northern district of Ramot.
"This is a new stage in Har Homa which really extends it," Ofran said. "It is a big provocation at a very sensitive time in the negotiation process."
Although headlines about fresh settlement plans looked likely to embarrass the Israeli leader, Peace Now's Ofran said the timing of the announcement was not accidental as the plans had been readied to put forward for public scrutiny since July 2008.
"It seems to be a calculated attempt by Netanyahu to torpedo peace talks and also avoid blame, by forcing the Palestinians to be the ones to walk away from the negotiation table," she said.
Building work at Har Homa, which is near the West Bank city of Bethlehem, began in 1997 during Netanyahu's first term as premier, in a move which led to the breakdown of peace talks.
"Har Homa has become a symbol of Netanyahu’s refusal of peace," she said, saying its establishment "became a major cause for the failure of the Oslo Process."
In a separate development, plans were also approved on Monday for 32 more homes in Pisgat Zeev East, another settlement neighbourhood, a spokeswoman for Israeli rights group Ir Amim told AFP.
Interior ministry spokeswoman Efrat Orbach told AFP the plans for building in Har Homa and Ramot had been signed off six months ago, but details were only made public late last week when an official notice appeared in two newspapers.
"Anybody who wants to object has 60 days in which to do so," she said, pointing out that it was the beginning of a long process which could take several years to materialise.
"Maybe in a few years somebody will actually move in there."
Israel does not consider Har Homa, Ramot or Pisgat Zeev East to be settlements because they are within Jerusalem's municipal boundaries, drawn up by Israel after it captured and annexed the mostly Arab eastern half of the city in 1967.
Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians face imminent collapse in the row about settlement building on occupied land, which restarted on September 26 after temporary restrictions on building expired.
Until now, Netanyahu has refused to contemplate a new temporary freeze on West Bank construction, largely because he lacks support for such a move within his right-wing coalition.
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.