Israel has authorised the construction of 296 new settler homes in the West Bank, an Israeli army official said Thursday, in a controversial move that is likely to spark tensions as Washington seeks to reignite peace talks.
Israel has given the go-ahead to build nearly 300 homes in the Beit El settlement near Ramallah, an official said Thursday, in a move likely to spark tensions as Washington seeks to rekindle peace talks.
"The Civil Administration has given the green light for 296 housing units at Beit El, but this is only the first stage of a process before actual construction can begin," said the spokesman for a unit within the defence ministry which administers the West Bank.
Israel's chief peace negotiator Tzipi Livni said she had been informed about the move as she was holding talks in Rome with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday, but sought to play down its impact.
"There is no need for this to become a pretext for drama or anger," she told army radio, saying she had updated the Americans about the development.
"They listened and they understood and for the moment, there is no reaction."
The Civil Administration said the new homes were a compensatory measure after the government evicted 30 settler families from Ulpana, an unauthorised outpost on the outskirts of Beit El following a High Court ruling.
The announcement came on the back of a report that said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had ordered a freeze on tenders for new settler homes in a bid to give a chance to US-led efforts to revive moribund peace talks with the Palestinians.
Hagit Ofran of Israel's Peace Now settlement watchdog, who on Wednesday had confirmed no new tenders had been issued since the start of the year, lashed out at the move, accusing Netanyahu of playing a double game.
"This initiative proves Netanyahu is deceiving the world," she told AFP.
"On the one hand, he lets us believe that he is putting the brakes on settlement and on the other, he gives the go-ahead for an enormous building project."
She explained that offering tenders was a procedure usually followed in the larger settlement, but was not necessary for construction in the smaller, more isolated, settlements such as Beit El which is made up of some 900 housing units.
Ofran said the move would increase the size of Beit El by a third, but said the plan needed to go through several more stages before building could start, which she said would be likely "in about a year's time."
Beit El is located on the northern outskirts of Ramallah in an area that would not be annexed to Israel under any future peace agreement, the watchdog noted.
Direct peace talks broke down shortly after they were launched in September 2010 because of an intractable dispute over Israel's settlement building, which is widely accepted as a violation of international law.
The Palestinians say they will not return to negotiations unless Israel freezes construction on land they want for a future state.
Date created : 2013-05-09