UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday condemned Israel’s announcement of new settlement expansion, calling the move illegal and an obstacle to peace.
Speaking during his first press conference of 2014, Ban said that the UN anticipates “decisive progress” in talks between Israel and the Palestinians toward “drawing back from a perilous status quo.”
The secretary general said he was “alarmed” by the Ministry of Housing and Construction’s announcement Friday that it had approved tenders for 1,400 new housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. “Such activity is not only illegal but also an obstacle to peace,” Ban said.
Earlier on Friday ministry spokesman Arik Ben Shimon said 801 units were approved for West Bank settlements, including 227 in Efrat, 169 in Elkana and 40 in Ariel.
In addition, Karnei Shomron would see an additional 86 units, Alfei Menashe 78, Adam 75, Beiter Illit 24, and Emanuel 102.
The Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, over the Green Line, would see another 600 units built.
Friday’s announcement had been expected after Israel released 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in late December, part of a deal made last summer when Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resumed.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has previously issued similar construction announcements to blunt criticism at home of prisoner releases, as many of those released were convicted of killing Israeli civilians and soldiers.
This time, the announcement was apparently postponed until after a visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in the region last week.
Kerry has been pushing a framework agreement, as part of his efforts to nudge Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu closer to a full treaty that would establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday the step was “not conducive to our efforts to move forward on peace,” adding: “We consider now and have always considered the settlements to be illegitimate.”
Finance Minister Yair Lapid decried the announcement, calling it “empty.” He said the announcements were not genuine building tenders but, rather, meaningless “declarations to build.”
“This is not only a bad idea,” he said, “but is also one that Yesh Atid will do everything it can to ensure it remains only a bad idea that is not carried out.”
Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog also attacked the announcement, tying it to the recent release of Palestinian prisoners as part of ongoing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Herzog said that Netanyahu could have chosen to freeze settlement construction instead of freeing prisoners, which Herzog called “immoral,” but the prime minister would not compromise on building settlements.
“The prisoner release was turned into a real estate deal,” said Herzog.
The Palestinian Authority also came out strongly against the move.
“This shows Israel’s clear commitment to the destruction of peace and imposition of an Apartheid system,” said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, according to a statement released by the PLO negotiating team.
“The recent announcement by the Israeli government of new settlements in occupied State of Palestine is a slap to Mr. Kerry’s efforts and a clear message by Israel’s Prime Minister: ‘Don’t continue with your peace efforts,” the statement continued.
“We call on the United States and the rest of the international community to exert further efforts to halt the Israeli plans which aims to destroy the chances for the two state solution.”
In addition, another 532 units that had been approved for construction in the past, but did not attract offers from builders, are to be put back on the market. Those units are to be situated in the neighborhoods of Pisgat Ze’ev, Ramot, and Neve Yaakov, all of which sit over the Green Line.
In November, the Housing and Construction Ministry announced that it had approved the sale of land for some 1,700 apartments over the Green Line, including some 700 new apartments in Jerusalem and 1,030 in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The Ministry said then that the announcement was in keeping with its policy of approving increased housing construction as a measure to help reduce the cost of housing nationwide.
Lazar Berman contributed to this report.