EU warns Israel of backlash for settlement building

Israel should expect ‘harsh response’ if construction plans issued during talks, diplomat says; Erekat threatens to go to ICC

Illustrative: The Beit Aryeh settlement in the West Bank, January 2013. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Illustrative: The Beit Aryeh settlement in the West Bank, January 2013. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

A European diplomat on Thursday warned Jerusalem against approving new settlement construction amid ongoing talks with the Palestinians, saying Israel will be met with a “harsh response” from Brussels should it go ahead with the move.

Speaking with Channel 10, the unnamed diplomat said that there would be very little sympathy by European governments for the announcement of settlement construction during talks with the Palestinians, and that “Israel needs to expect a harsh response by the European governments if it intends to go in this direction.”

Earlier Thursday, Palestinian Authority officials expressed outrage at reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to announce new settlement construction in the coming week, coinciding with Israel’s release of Palestinian prisoners in the third of four phased releases agreed upon as a precondition to peace talks.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Thursday that should Israel go ahead with the plan, the PA would “no longer remain committed to not joining international organizations,” including the International Criminal Court (ICC), according to the Palestinian Wafa news agency.

“We strongly condemn this matter and consider it a blast of the peace process,” Erekat told China’s Xinhua news agency.

“Those who fear the ICC should stop committing war crimes, including the construction of settlements,” he added. Erekat has in the past repeatedly labeled settlement construction as a “war crime.”

Israeli TV reports said Wednesday that the plan to be announced by Netanyahu called for 1,000 to 2,000 new settlement homes. A Thursday Channel 2 report specified 600 homes over the Green Line inside Jerusalem, 800 more inside West Bank settlement blocs, and the start of the planning process for a further 1,000 units.

Channel 10 said the prime minister was going ahead with the announcement of new settlement building despite the fact that the last such announcement, which coincided with the second phase of prisoner releases, almost caused the collapse of peace talks. It said the US and EU had both urged him not to go ahead with the plan, but he was unmoved.

The Palestinian Authority Minister for Prisoners’ Affairs, Issa Karake, said that the linkage between Palestinian prisoner releases and new settlement units was “unacceptable.”

“Unlike the release of prisoners, which advances peace talks and creates hope that a [peace] agreement can be reached, the building of settlements scuttles the possibility of moving forward [with negotiations],” said Karake, according to a report in Maariv Thursday.

He added that from the Palestinian point of view, the upcoming announcement is considered an “inappropriate Israeli stunt that is not conducive to future talks.”

Wasil Abu Yousif, a Palestinian official, said Wednesday that the expected announcement was evidence that Israel “is not serious” about pursuing peace. “It’s clear to everyone now that the Israeli government is killing the peace process.” While stopping short of threatening to withdraw from the current round of peace negotiations, he said Israel’s policy would force the Palestinians to seek “more substantial alternatives.”

Despite a recent uptick in violence in the past week, with attacks on Israeli targets in Gaza and the West Bank, and the attempted bombing of an Israeli bus in Bat Yam, the cabinet decided Wednesday it would proceed as planned with the release of the 26 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons next Sunday.

Netanyahu in November halted much larger plans for new settlement construction advocated by his Housing Minister Uri Ariel, saying the move to push forward tens of thousands of new units over the Green Line was a “meaningless step” that would create pointless tension with the international community.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, since the beginning of 2013, 32,290 construction sites for housing units were erected across Israel, an increase of 5.5% compared to the corresponding time frame in 2012.

The release of Palestinian prisoners was one of the preconditions to negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Israel in July agreed to release 104 prisoners, most of whom were convicted before the 1993 Oslo Accords, in four phases over the course of the nine-month negotiation process.

According to a Channel 2 report, the Netanyahu cabinet decided Wednesday that it would stick by its pledge on the prisoner releases to the US, which is brokering the talks with the Palestinians, and that the spike in terrorism did not justify breaching that commitment. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Wednesday that security officials would review which prisoners to release and which would remain incarcerated.

Ya’alon remarked that Israel was not overjoyed to let them free, but reiterated that the release of these prisoners “stems from broader considerations.”

Channel 2 said the pro-settlement Jewish Home party was not pushing for the announcement of new settlement building, since it felt the linkage of prisoner releases to West Bank settlement construction was damaging to the settlement enterprise. Thus, the report said, the announcement would be at the personal choice of Netanyahu.

AP contributed to this report.

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