Israel announced plans to build hundreds of homes in the West Bank and disputed east Jerusalem, drawing Palestinian condemnation just days before a visit by a U.S. general to monitor the troubled peace process.
Housing Minister Zeev Boim said the new housing would include 350 apartments in Givat Zeev, a West Bank settlement just outside of Jerusalem, and 750 homes in the Pisgat Zeev neighborhood of east Jerusalem.
Speaking to Israel Radio, Boim said the Givat Zeev construction initially began some eight years ago, but was suspended because of fighting with the Palestinians.
“When violence subsided, demand grew again and contractors renewed their permits to build there,” he said. The Pisgat Zeev construction, he added, “is inside Jerusalem’s city borders.”
Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war. It immediately annexed east Jerusalem and considers all of the city its capital. The annexation has not been recognized internationally.
The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem as parts of a future independent state. But Israel has said it wants to keep large settlement blocs, along with Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, under any final peace agreement.
The Givat Zeev construction “is consistent with our long-standing position that building within the large settlement blocs, which will stay a part of Israel in any final status agreement, will continue,” said government spokesman Mark Regev said. Construction outside the settlement blocs has been frozen, he added.
'Humiliating' move, Palestinian says
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat harshly condemned the new Israeli construction plans, saying it undermines already troubled peace efforts.
“Why do they insist on doing this and humiliating Abu Mazen in front of the Palestinian public?” he said, using the nickname of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Erekat said he had appealed to the U.S. to pressure Israel to halt the projects.
Palestinian attacks on Israel and Israeli retaliatory strikes, along with continued Israeli settlement construction, have upset U.S.-backed peace talks. The talks, resumed in November after a seven-year breakdown, aim to reach a final peace agreement by the end of the year.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week persuaded the Palestinians to resume talks, which they had suspended to protest an Israeli military operation against Gaza rocket squads. More than 120 Palestinians were killed in the offensive.
The talks suffered another blow when a Palestinian man killed eight Israelis at a religious seminary on Thursday.
Israeli officials said privately over the weekend that negotiations would proceed despite the attack on the seminary, which is the flagship for Israel’s settlement movement.
The new construction plans announced Thursday may have been a gesture by Olmert toward the settlement movement, which opposes his talk of withdrawing from large parts of the West Bank and Palestinian neighborhoods in east Jerusalem as part of a final peace deal.
U.S. envoy to arrive Thursday
On Thursday, a U.S. envoy, Lt. Gen. William Fraser III, is scheduled to arrive in the region for his first joint meeting with Israelis and Palestinians.
President Bush appointed Fraser in January to monitor implementation of the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan — which among other measures calls on Israel to freeze all settlement activity. The plan also calls on the Palestinians to rein in militant groups — a step Israel says has not been fulfilled.
Givat Zeev is in one of the three major settlement blocs that Israel intends to retain in any peace agreement. Bush has signaled support for the Israeli position, and the Palestinians have expressed willingness to consider swapping land where settlement blocs stand for equal amounts of Israeli land.
An overwhelming majority of the 270,000 West Bank settlers live in the major blocs, and an additional 180,000 Israelis live in Jewish neighborhoods Israel built in Jerusalem after capturing and annexing it in 1967. Israel does not consider the east Jerusalem neighborhoods to be settlements, but the Palestinians and international community do.
Separately, an Israeli soldier wounded by Gaza militants in a border ambush on Thursday died Sunday of his wounds, the military said. He was the second soldier to die as a result of the attack, and the fourth soldier killed in Gaza violence this month.