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Israel to reveal plans to build more settlements

Israel’s intention to announce a new settlement construction push next week as it releases more Palestinian prisoners has spurred criticism from both Palestinians and a member of the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s, cabinet.
A building site in the Jewish settlement of Har Gilo, south of Jerusalem in the West Bank. Israeli announcements of fresh construction on land the Palestinians want for a future state have provoked fury. Jim Hollander / EPA
A building site in the Jewish settlement of Har Gilo, south of Jerusalem in the West Bank. Israeli announcements of fresh construction on land the Palestinians want for a future state have provoked fury. Jim Hollander / EPA

JERUSALEM // Israel’s intention to announce a new settlement construction push next week as it releases more Palestinian prisoners spurred criticism from both Palestinians and a member of the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s, cabinet.

The plan to issue bids to build on land Palestinians claim for a future state adds pressure on peace talks already strained by escalating violence between the sides.

A government official said he expects Mr Netanyahu to approve moving ahead with the plans.

The government also announced new construction in tandem with two previous rounds of prisoner releases to blunt opposition to freeing Palestinians involved in attacks on Israelis. The official, who was not authorised to give his name, said the latest construction push didn’t violate the guidelines of the United States-brokered negotiations.

Israel had agreed to free 104 Palestinian prisoners in four rounds, paving the way for the renewal of talks in July. The third round is scheduled to take place next week, with the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners on Sunday.

The previous releases in August and October were accompanied by Israeli announcements of fresh construction on land the Palestinians want for a future state, provoking Palestinian fury.

In October, plans for 1,500 Jewish settler homes in Arab east Jerusalem came to light almost immediately after Israel began freeing the second batch of 26 Palestinian prisoners.

Israel had likewise announced construction of more than 2,000 new settler homes in August, when it freed the first group of detainees.

“There’s not doubt that, in a formal sense, there was no commitment to stop construction,” the Israeli environment minister, Amir Peretz, told Army Radio. Even so, settlement building violates the spirit of the talks and jeopardises Israel’s international relationships, Mr Peretz added.

“We have to understand there’s a need to maintain the framework of our relationships with Europe, our special relationship with the US,” said Mr Peretz, whose Hatenuah party is the strongest supporter of peace talks in Mr Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.

The US and European Union have condemned Israeli settlement construction as endangering the chances of reaching a two-state peace deal.

Israel is “approving more settlement tenders because they want to find excuses not to continue the negotiations,” said Omar Al Ghoul, an adviser to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

The US “should tell the Israelis enough is enough,” he said.

“We will not stop, even for a moment, building our country and becoming stronger, and developing... the settlement enterprise,” Mr Netanyahu said last week.

Israeli media on Thursday suggested that the new construction push is aimed at pacifying Mr Netanyahu’s coalition partners following a surge of violence along the Israel-Gaza border and in the West Bank.

The Maariv daily quoted an unnamed top official as saying Mr Netanyahu had initially agreed to US and EU appeals to delay by two to three weeks the announcement of the new constructions.

But Mr Netanyahu apparently changed his mind under pressure from his coalition partners so as not to send out a “signal of weakness” to the Palestinians from Israel, Maariv said.

Cross-border exchanges between Israel and Gaza have increased in recent days, and Israel has said it holds Hamas, the coastal enclave’s Palestinian rulers, responsible for the unrest.

Mr Netanyahu has criticised Mr Abbas for failing to condemn the latest surge in violence, including the death of an Israeli man shot while repairing the border fence with Gaza on Tuesday.

“The terrorist attacks of recent days against Israelis are the direct result of incitement to hatred in the press and broadcast in Palestinian schools,” Mr Netanyahu said on Wednesday.

He added he was “disappointed that president Abbas has not yet condemned the recent terrorist acts as one would expect from a partner in peace negotiations”.

The Israeli army retaliated to the fatal shooting of the Israeli man by launching tank and air strikes on the Gaza Strip that killed a toddler and wounded six other Palestinians.

* Bloomberg & Agence France-Presse

Updated: December 26, 2013 04:00 AM

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