New settlement plans panned by US, Palestinians

UN secretary general also denounces announcement of major construction projects in East Jerusalem as ‘obstacle to peace’

Bird's-eye view of Ramat Shlomo, March 1, 2013 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Bird's-eye view of Ramat Shlomo, March 1, 2013 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The US State Department and the Palestinian Authority on Wednesday denounced Israel’s announcement that it would expedite several settlement expansion plans, with Ramallah saying the move “destroys 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 Ramat Shlomo, with the addition of 1,500 homes. The move was seen as a response to the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prison

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeina, was quoted by AFP 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”.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri railed against both Israel and the Palestinian Authority on Wednesday, saying the ongoing peace negotiations are responsible for “now providing [Israel] with a cover for these crimes.”

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.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was also critical, saying in a statement issued 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.

He said the move was “contrary to international law and constitutes an obstacle to peace.”

“Any measures that prejudge final status issues will not be recognized by the international community,” Ban said. While he noted his appreciation that Israel “took a difficult step in continuing to release Palestinian pre-Oslo prisoners in the face of deep domestic opposition,” the secretary general said he “expects the parties to take every possible step to promote conditions conducive to the success of the negotiating process and to refrain from actions that undermine trust.”

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.

Philip Gordon, Washington’s National Security Council coordinator for Middle East policy, told the audience at the American Task Force on Palestine’s annual gala that “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement expansion,” in an apparent reference to Israel’s new housing starts.

Among the projects set to be pushed through, according to Tuesday night’s decision, is a plan to approve 1,500 new apartment units in Ramat Shlomo, and a measure to allow construction of additional rooms in existing apartments in the neighborhood.

Announcement of construction in Ramat Shlomo, a northern Jerusalem neighborhood situated over the Green Line, precipitated diplomatic tension between the US and Israel during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit in March 2010.

Netanyahu and Sa’ar also gave the green light for advancing a tourism and archaeology center adjacent to the City of David — the site of an ongoing archaeological dig and a political flashpoint on the slopes below the Temple Mount — and a national park on Mount Scopus’s eastern slopes.

It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu’s efforts to offset right-wing criticism of the prisoner release through settlement construction will prove successful. Last week the pro-settlement Jewish Home party said in a statement that “the attempt to link the release of the murderers to construction tenders is manipulative and morally wrong. It will be better if the prime minister does not release murderers and does not build. This looks like a despicable attempt to free murderers and tarnish the settlement enterprise.”

An Israeli official last week said the Americans and Palestinians were aware of the Israeli building plans, which were made clear before peace talks resumed in the summer.

The Palestinians consider settlements a major obstacle to establishing a state that includes the West Bank and East Jerusalem, territories Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. Israel has since built widely over the Green Line inside Jerusalem, and at dozens of settlements in the West Bank, constructing homes for some 550,000 Israelis.

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 Associated Press and JTA contributed to this report.

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