Israel moving ahead with new settler housing

Jun 13, 2013, 8:43 AM EDT
A general view shows the illegal Jewish outpost of Rechelim, near the Palestinian West Bank city of Nablus on April 24, 2012.
AFP/Getty Images

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel is going ahead with plans to build more than 1,000 settler homes in the West Bank, a spokesman said Thursday, a step that drew criticism from the Palestinians and may pose a challenge to peace efforts by Secretary of State John Kerry.

Israeli military spokesman Maj. Guy Inbar said plans were advanced in the past two weeks to construct homes in the settlements of Itamar and Bruchin. More than 1,000 housing units are slated to be built and nearly 200 existing homes are expected to be granted official approval there.

The settlements were given preliminary approval last year and the construction plans still require official endorsement following public appeals. Hagit Ofran, from the anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now, estimated that construction could begin in about a year, if approved.

An Israeli government official downplayed the development, calling it part of a bureaucratic process and not an approval. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the housing plans with the media.

The move comes amid Kerry's ongoing efforts to corral Israel and the Palestinians to return to peace talks, which have been stalled for nearly five years. Kerry has been shuttling between the sides in recent months in hopes of finding a formula to restart negotiations.

West Bank settlement building lies at the heart of the current impasse in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, who condemned the new step.

"It's clear that there is an Israeli escalation and it's not the first time that they do this to challenge and embarrass the American administration," said Nimr Hamad, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"The Palestinian position is clear. The settlement activities are illegal," Hamad said.

The Palestinians refuse to resume talks with Israel as long as it continues to build in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, lands they claim as part of a future state, along with the Gaza Strip. Israel captured the territories in the 1967 Mideast war.

More than 500,000 Israelis now live in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which are considered illegal or illegitimate by the international community.

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Associated Press writer Dalia Nammari contributed reporting from Ramallah, West Bank.