Israel has moved forward with plans to build nearly 1,200 new homes for Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – a move Mohammed Shtayyeh, a peace negotiator for the Palestinians, called an attempt to "destroy the basis of the solution called for by the international community which aims to establish a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders." The announcement from Israel comes a day before a planned release of a number of Palestinian prisoners, and days ahead of peace talks slated to begin on Wednesday.
Settlements built on territories occupied by Israel in the war of 1967 (including the West Bank and East Jerusalem) are deemed illegal by the United Nations, and insistence that Israel demonstrate good faith by halting such construction has been a key reason for the Palestinian side declining to reenter peace talks over the past three years. Rather than agree to a settlement freeze, however, the Israeli side offered a limited prisoner-release as a good-faith concession to get Palestinian leaders back to the table.
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat suggested the settlement issue could plague the new talks initiated by Secretary of State John Kerry. "If the Israeli government believes that every week they're going to cross a red line by settlement activity, if they go with this behavior," Erekat said Sunday, "what they're advertising is the unsustainability of the negotiations."
Israeli Housing Minister Uri Aiel, a member of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party, made the announcement on Sunday, just two days before a planned release of long-term Palestinian prisoners.
Israel's Housing Ministry said on its website that tenders were issued for building 793 new apartments in areas of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Plots for 394 more units were being sold in settlements Israel has said it aims to keep in any land-for-peace accord with the Palestinians.
Still, despite condemning the settlement expansion plans, Abbas' team has stopped short of abandoning the negotiations, which began in Washington two weeks ago and are due to resume on Wednesday in Jerusalem.
Erekat urged the international community to stand "shoulder to shoulder with us and hold Israel accountable for its continuing settlement activities."
"Continuing settlement activity means dictations not negotiations," he said.
Israel is expected to free 26 Palestinian prisoners on Tuesday out of a total of 104 inmates whose release in four stages was approved last month as a goodwill gesture to help persuade PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas agree to restart U.S.-brokered talks.
Late Sunday, a group of Israeli cabinet ministers selected the names in the first group of prisoners, to be published early Monday.
Fourteen prisoners will be released to Gaza and 12 to the West Bank, according to a government statement. Eight of the prisoners had three years left to serve and two would have been released in six months or less, the statement said.
Abbas, also the President of the Palestinian Authority, has long demanded the release of all of the thousands of Palestinians still held in Israeli prisons.
According to B'Tselem, at the end of June, more than 200 minors and 6,000 adult Palestinians were being held in Israeli prisons.
Separately, Israel's military-run Civil Administration in the West Bank gave preliminary approval on Thursday for the construction of more than 800 new homes for settlers, but said it needed government consent before building could begin.
Al Jazeera with wire services