JERUSALEM // Israel decided to legalise three settler outposts yesterday, which the Palestinians denounced as a response to a letter from Mahmoud Abbas demanding a halt to settlement activity if peace talks are to resume.
A ministerial committee has decided "to formalise the status of three communities which were established in the 1990s," the office of Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, said.
That was angrily denounced by the Palestinians and by Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now, which said it was the first time Israel had created new settlements in more than 20 years.
The three outposts - Bruchin, Rechelim and Sansana - had no Israeli legal status since they were set up, but will now join the 120 official settlements dotted across the occupied West Bank that are home to more than 342,000 people.
The Palestinian leadership said the decision was "expected" and said it was "the Israeli answer" to a letter from Mr Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, to Mr Netanyahu, in which he laid out the Palestinian grievances over the collapse of the peace process and outlined his demands for restarting negotiations.
Central to the letter was the demand for a settlement freeze.
"The decision on the settlements is the Israeli answer to President Abbas's letter," Mr Abbas's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeina, said, urging the Netanyahu administration to "immediately cease unilateral actions, especially settlement activity".
In the letter, delivered to Mr Netanyahu on April 17, Mr Abbas demanded that Israel clarify its position on several key issues, including the principle of a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines and halting settlement activity.
Both sides agreed the Israelis would respond within two weeks.
But an official insisted the decision did not mean Israel had established any new settlements.
"This decision does not change the reality on the ground," he said. "It does not establish new settlements or expand existing settlements."
His remarks were denounced by Peace Now's Hagit Ofran, who accused the government of creating new settlements in a deceitful way.
"The Israeli government is proving its true policy, that instead of going for peace, it is building new settlements," she said yesterday.