Israel approves more settler homes in East Jerusalem

U.S. believes talks will continue despite Palestinian protests over construction in occupied territory

Construction is seen in the occupied East Jerusalem Jewish settlement of Har Gilo, near Jerusalem July 18, 2013
Baz Ratner/Reuters

Israel has approved 942 new settlement housing units in East Jerusalem, according to a local official. The move comes on the eve of the scheduled resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians, potentially complicating already fragile negotiations.

"The Jerusalem municipality has approved a construction plan for 942 homes in Gilo," municipal councilor Yosef Pepe Alalu said. Gilo is an existing Israeli settlement in east Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as part of their future state. The U.N. deems illegal all Israeli settlement on land conquered in the war of June 1967, which includes East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

The planned 942 units disclosed by the local official would be over and above to the 1,200 West Bank settlement homes approved by Israel on Sunday, a move that has angered Palestinians and drawn criticism from the international community.

"New settlement construction is nothing new during peace talks," Noura Erakat, a human rights attorney and a consultant for the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Refugee and Residency Rights, told Al Jazeera. "This is precisely the policy Israel pursued during the 'heyday'" of negotiations in the 1990s. 

The State Department criticized the settlement plans, and reiterated that the U.S. does not accept "the legitimacy of continued settlement activity." But Secretary of State John Kerry expressed hope that Palestinian anger over Israeli settlement announcements would not derail talks, which are scheduled to resume Wednesday.

Speaking during a trip to Colombia, Kerry sought to soothe tensions by suggesting that the settlement plans were "to some degree expected," and calling for both sides to address the issue in negotiation. The Obama Administration had, from 2009 to 2011, pressed Israel to freeze settlement construction in order to revive talks, but abandoned that effort in the face of Israel's refusal to comply.

A spokesman for Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that the new settlement units were being built "in areas that will remain part of Israel in any possible future peace agreement."

"It changes nothing," Mark Regev added.

Kerry seemed eager to avoid the talks he has brokered being undermined by a new furor over settlements. "We have known that there was going to be a continuation of some building in certain places, and I think the Palestinians understand that," the chief U.S. diplomat said in Bogota. But he said that one of the announcements might have been "outside of that level of expectation, and that's being discussed right now."

The U.S. government expressed concern over the settlement announcement, while European Union spokesman Michael Mann warned that "Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law and threaten to make a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impossible."

Israel's refusal to halt settlement construction has been a key reason for the Palestine Liberation Organization declining to reenter peace talks over the past three years.

Rather than agree to a settlement freeze, the Israeli side offered a limited prisoner-release as a good-faith concession to get Palestinian leaders back to the table.


Security and borders first

Israel began the process of releasing 26 Palestinian political prisoners Tuesday. More than 4,800 Palestinians are being held in Israeli jails, according to Jerusalem-based human rights group B'Tselem.

Activists skeptical of the peace talks say one of Israel's motivations in releasing the prisoners is to bolster Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's public image.  

Israel is "only releasing small number of prisoners to allow Abbas not to lose face after giving up the demand to stop settlements," Palestinian political activist based in Ramallah, Abir Kopty, told Al Jazeera. "Bottom line: Israel uses the peace talks to cover for its colonialist policies."

On Monday, Israel "arrested about 13 Palestinians including 2 minors, half the number it will release tonight," Kopty added.

A security source within the Palestinian Authority told Al Jazeera that three additional Palestinians were detained by Israel Tuesday night as Abbas and other Palestinian leaders waited to receive the released prisoners at PA headquarters in Ramallah.

Kerry, who took the lead in securing last month's resumption of peace talks, said he did not expect the latest developments to become a "speed bump," but he reiterated that the U.S. regarded all settlements as "illegitimate".

He said he had spoken with Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni and had called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"What this underscores, actually, is the importance of getting to the table... quickly, and resolving the questions with respect to settlements, which are best resolved by solving the problem of security and borders," Kerry told reporters.

"Once you have security and borders solved, you have resolved the question of settlements," he said.

Ehab Zahriyeh and Renee Lewis contributed to this report. Al Jazeera and wire services

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