Israel gives go-ahead to 296 West Bank settler homes
Israel has given the go-ahead to build nearly 300 homes in the settlement of Beit El near Ramallah, a spokesman said, just two days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu allegedly ordered a freeze on construction.
"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," he said, speaking on behalf of a unit within the defense ministry which administers the West Bank.
He explained that the construction plans were part of a compensatory measure for settlers who were evicted last year from Ulpana, an outpost unauthorized by Israel on the outskirts of Beit El. Ulpana was evacuated in June 2012 following a High Court ruling.
Israel had previously given final approval for 90 new homes in Beit El in February.
The announcement came two days after a report said Netanyahu had quietly ordered a freeze on tenders for new settler homes in a bid to give a chance to US-led efforts to revive peace talks with the Palestinians.
Palestinian officials slammed the decision to approve settlement expansion.
"We condemn this new decision which is proof that the Israeli government wants to sabotage and ruin the US administration's efforts to revive the peace process," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP.
"This is a message to the American administration and a blow to the peace process," he said, pointing to the "intense" shuttle diplomacy being conducted by US Secretary of State John Kerry to try to bring both sides back to negotiations.
"This aims to drag the region into violence instead of peace and stability," Erakat added.
Hagit Ofran of Israel's Peace Now settlement watchdog also denounced the move.
"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."
According to Peace Now data for 2012, at least 1,747 new settlement housing units were built in the past year, and plans were approved for the construction of 6,676 more homes.
The international community views all Israeli construction on occupied Palestinian land as a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention,
The Palestinians say they will not return to negotiations unless Israel freezes construction on land they want for a future state.