JERUSALEM // Israel’s announcement that it plans to build 1,500 new settler homes in occupied East Jerusalem after freeing 26 Palestinian prisoners is destroying the peace process, the Palestinian Authority said yesterday.
Plans to build the homes in the city’s Arab sector came to light almost immediately after Israel began freeing 21 prisoners to the West Bank and another five to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip overnight.
The sequence was almost a repeat of August 13, when a first group of 26 prisoners was freed and Israel announced construction of more than 2,000 new settler homes, mostly in east Jerusalem.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeina, said yesterday the latest move “destroys the peace process and is a message to the international community that Israel is a country that does not respect international law”.
A statement from the presidency said it “leads the Palestinian and Arab parties to lose confidence that this Israeli government will make peace,” the official Wama news agency reported.
“All settler activities are illegal and no settlement will remain on Palestinian soil,” it added.
The settlement construction is seen as an attempt by Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make up for the prisoner release, for which he has been sharply criticised at home.
Israel’s interior ministry spokeswoman Lital Apter said yesterday that the 1,500 new apartments would be built in Ramat Shlomo, a sprawling settlement in East Jerusalem. She said Israel also plans to develop an archaeology and tourism site near the Old City, home to Jerusalem’s most important holy sites.
Israel captured East Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in the 1967 war. The Palestinians seek all three areas for a future state, with East Jerusalem as their capital.
Israel considers all of Jerusalem to be its eternal capital, and Netanyahu has vowed never to divide the city. Israel has built a series of settlements, including Ramat Shlomo, to solidify its control.
Israel first announced the Ramat Shlomo plans in 2010 during US vice president Joe Biden’s visit to Israel, sparking a diplomatic rift with Washington that took months to mend. Yesterday’s decision is the final approval needed, and construction can now begin immediately, officials said.
The release of 26 Palestinians after midnight on Tuesday was the second of four prisoner releases meant to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks in an effort to reach a final agreement between the two sides.
The Palestinians had long refused to resume peace negotiations with Israel unless it ends settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel refused, insisting that settlements and other core issues, including security, should be resolved through negotiations.
Under a compromise brokered by US secretary of state John Kerry, the Palestinians agreed to resume talks in late July after Israel agreed to the release of the longest-serving Palestinian prisoners. In all, 104 Palestinian convicts are to be released in four rounds over the coming months.
The Palestinians condemned the latest settlement plans, but it was not immediately clear if it would directly effect the talks, which are taking place behind closed doors and away from the public eye as both sides had agreed to.
“We are worried and concerned that if Israel continues with the expansion of settlements, this might kill the two states vision which we would like to see on this land,” said Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah.
Israel is holding about 5,000 Palestinian prisoners on charges ranging from throwing stones at security forces to killing civilians in bombings, shootings and other attacks.
Israel has a long history of lopsided prisoner exchanges with its Arab adversaries. But this week’s release appeared especially charged because Israel appeared to be receiving little in return except for the opportunity to conduct negotiations that few people believe will be successful.
Danny Danon, a hawkish minister from Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party condemned the release. “It is tough to see terrorists celebrate when their place is either under the ground or in jail,” Mr Danon told Israel Radio, adding that the release sends the wrong message to young Palestinians. He stressed that his party was committed to construction in East Jerusalem.
Yossi Beilin, a dovish former Israeli peace negotiator, questioned the wisdom of releasing “despicable” killers while building in East Jerusalem during talks with the Palestinians.
He told Israel Radio he thinks it would have been better if construction had been frozen to restart talks with the Palestinians and prisoner release put off until a final peace agreement.
Also, critics such as dovish members of Mr Netanyahu’s coalition said he could have avoided the release if he had accepted Palestinian calls either to stop construction in West Bank settlements or base negotiations over the borders of a future Palestinian state on Israel’s pre-1967 lines.
* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press