Israel's housing minister on Sunday gave final approval for building nearly 1,200 new settlement apartments on lands the Palestinians want for their state, three days before U.S.-sponsored talks on the borders of such a state were to begin in Jerusalem.
The Palestinians said they would complain to the U.S. and Europe. Negotiator Mohammed Shtayyeh said Israel's latest announcement on promoting settlement plans, the third over the course of a week, "is clear proof that the Israeli government is not serious about the talks."
The announcement by Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel came just hours before Israel was to announce the names of 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners to be freed later this week. In all, Israel has promised to free 104 such prisoners in four stages over the course of nine months of negotiations.
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The release of the prisoners is part of a U.S.-brokered deal that brought the two sides back to the table after a five-year freeze. Sunday's new settlement announcement and the expected decision on choosing the prisoners slated for release highlighted the apparent tradeoff: Israel releases some prisoners, but gets to keep building in settlements during the negotiations.
The Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967. Since the 1967 war, Israel has built dozens of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that are now home to some 560,000 Israelis.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had long insisted he would not resume negotiations without a building settlement freeze, arguing that their expansion pre-empts the outcome of such talks. Most of the international community, including the UN Security Council and the World Court, have deemed the settlements illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Abbas dropped his demand for the building freeze after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry won Israel's agreement to release inmates serving long sentences, including those involved in the killing of Israelis who otherwise would likely have spent the rest of their days in prison.
Palestinian officials said Kerry also assured them that the U.S. views Israel's pre-1967 lines as a starting point for border talks, even though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to endorse the idea.
Any prisoner release is highly controversial in Israel, particularly of Palestinians involved in killing Israelis. Abie Moses, whose pregnant wife and son were killed in a Palestinian firebomb attack in 1987, sharply criticized the government's choices.
For the government, "it's easiest to free those murderers," Moses told Israel TV's Channel 10. "We don't have the energy to scream like the [political] right who [protest] freezing settlements or talking about the 1967 borders."
Netanyahu presides over a coalition government with vocal advocates for continued settlement building, including in his own Likud Party.
In Sunday's settlement announcement, the housing ministry said 1,187 apartments had been given final approval, the last stage before issuing tenders to contractors. Of those, 793 will be built in neighbourhoods for Jews in East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel shortly after the 1967 Mideast war. Most of the international community does not recognize the annexation.
In addition, 394 apartments are to be built in several large West Bank settlements, including Maaleh Adumim, Efrat and Ariel. The latter sits in the heart of the West Bank, and its expansion could be particularly problematic for negotiators trying to carve out a viable Palestinian state.
The housing minister, a leading member of the pro-settler party Jewish Home, said construction would continue.
"No country in the world takes orders from other countries where it can build and where it can't," Ariel said in his statement. "We will continue to market housing and build in the entire country ... This is the right thing at the present time, for Zionism and for the economy."
Sunday's announcement is the third by Israel in a week that pushes forward settlement plans. A week ago, Israel expanded its list of settlements eligible for special government subsidies. Several days later, the government promoted building plans for more than 1,000 settlement homes.