JERUSALEM: Israel announced plans Wednesday to build more than 1,500 homes in Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, dealing a setback to newly relaunched peace efforts hours after it had freed a group of long-serving Palestinian prisoners.
The construction plans drew angry condemnations from Palestinian officials, who accused Israel of undermining the U.S.-led talks by expanding settlements on the lands where they hope to establish an independent state. U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon also condemned the Israeli decision, and Washington said it would not create a “positive environment” for the negotiations.
Israel had freed the 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of a U.S.-brokered agreement to restart the talks. The construction was meant to blunt anger over the release of the prisoners, all of whom had been convicted of murder in the deaths of Israelis.
Israel’s Interior Ministry said 1,500 apartments would be built in Ramat Shlomo, a large settlement in east Jerusalem, the section of the holy city claimed by the Palestinians as their capital. It also announced plans for archaeology and tourism projects near the Old City, home to Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy sites.
Israel first announced the Ramat Shlomo plan in 2010 during a visit to Israel by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, sparking a diplomatic rift with Washington that took months to mend. Wednesday’s decision is the final approval needed, and construction can begin immediately, officials said.
Ofir Akunis, a lawmaker from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, said construction also had been approved for several West Bank settlements.
“The building in Judea and Samaria will continue and be intensified,” said Akunis, using the biblical term for the West Bank.
In addition, he told parliament that Netanyahu had given orders to “advance plans” for more than 2,000 homes in a longer list of settlements across the West Bank.
While these projects still need additional bureaucratic approvals, they are especially provocative because several of the settlements are deep inside the West Bank and almost certainly would have to be dismantled as part of a peace deal.