Israel pushes ahead with plan to build in East Jerusalem

 

Jerusalem

Israel on Monday advanced a project to build hundreds of homes in East Jerusalem, pushing ahead with plans for a surge of settlement building on occupied land in response to a successful Palestinian bid to gain limited recognition of statehood at the United Nations.

The settlement expansion plans have drawn condemnations from Washington and from European nations, some of which have summoned Israeli ambassadors to lodge formal protests. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is running in elections next month, has defied the calls to rescind the building plans.

A spokeswoman for Israel's Interior Ministry said Monday that a planning committee had approved another stage in plans for construction of 1,500 homes in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood built on West Bank land annexed to Jerusalem after Israel captured the area in the 1967 Middle East war.

The plans caused a diplomatic flap when they were announced during Vice President Joe Biden's visit in 2010, drawing swift condemnation from him and straining Israel's ties with Washington. Further steps to promote the plan were suspended, but it has been reactivated after the vote at the U.N. General Assembly last month to upgrade the Palestinians' status to a non-member observer state.

The Interior Ministry spokeswoman said that final approval of the plan could take months to years, and that a similar housing development in another part of East Jerusalem was expected to be discussed by the planning panel on Tuesday. That project, known as Givat Hamatos, would extend a belt of Israeli neighborhoods on annexed land on Jerusalem's southern outskirts, further separating the city's Arab neighborhoods from the West Bank.

After the U.N. vote, Netanyahu approved the construction of 3,000 homes in West Bank settlements and in East Jerusalem, and the advancement of plans for a settlement corridor east of Jerusalem that is seen as critically damaging prospects for a territorially contiguous Palestinian state.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said the building plans approved Monday were simply "another procedural phase" in a process that "would've happened anyway," regardless of the recently announced settlement building drive.

But Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, called the latest Israeli step "a flagrant defiance of the will of the entire international community."

Israel's continued expansion of settlements is at the core of the current impasse in peace efforts. The Palestinians, who seek a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with a capital in East Jerusalem, have refused to resume negotiations with Israel unless it halts settlement building on occupied land.

Netanyahu has called for a return to talks without preconditions, arguing that all key issues in dispute, including the settlements, could be discussed in the negotiations. He has condemned the Palestinians' U.N. statehood bid as an attempt to bypass such talks.

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