The European Union’s foreign policy chief Thursday condemned Israel’s announcement of expansion plans in East Jerusalem neighborhoods, calling on the government to desist even from construction intended to accommodate “natural growth.”
“The EU deplores the recent settlement announcements. Any actions that could hamper or undermine the ongoing negotiations must be avoided,” Catherine Ashton said in a statement. “The EU has repeatedly stated that settlements are illegal under international law. It has also called on Israel to end all settlement activity, including natural growth, and to dismantle outposts erected since March 2001.”
With her statement, Ashton joined a long list of international leaders who criticized the Israeli plan, which was largely seen as a response to the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons Tuesday night. Controversial in Israel, the prisoner release occurred in the framework of US-brokered peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, was quoted by the AFP news agency saying the move “destroys the peace process and is a message to the international community that Israel is a country that does not respect international law.”
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “We do not consider continued settlement activity or East Jerusalem construction to be steps that create a positive environment for the negotiations.”
On Wednesday, Israeli officials were quoted saying that US officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, were aware of the settlement expansion plans before peace talks resumed in August.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday that he “deplores” Israel’s announcement of settlement construction plans. The Jordanian government issued a statement warning that the new plans pose “a direct threat” to the peace process.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar on Wednesday agreed to expedite four East Jerusalem construction plans, including one which would significantly expand the size of the capital’s northern Ramat Shlomo neighborhood with the addition of 1,500 homes.
Ofir Akunis, a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud party, said construction also had been approved for several West Bank settlements. “The building in Judea and Samaria will continue and be intensified,” said Akunis, using the biblical term for the West Bank. In addition, he told parliament that Netanyahu had given orders to “advance plans” for more than 2,000 homes in a longer list of settlements across the West Bank.
Just after midnight on Tuesday, thousands of Palestinians gathered in Ramallah to greet 21 prisoners released from Israeli custody to the West Bank as part of arrangements for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Five other Palestinian prisoners were released earlier in Gaza. All 26 were convicted murderers, most of them jailed for crimes committed before the 1993 Oslo Accords.
The Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.