Israel has given final approval to the building of 40 new houses at a settlement in the occupied West Bank to replace temporary structures there, the settlement’s council head said.
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed over a year ago in a dispute over Israeli settlement building.
"Building tenders were issued this week after Defence Minister Ehud Barak had already signed off on the construction plans," Efrat council head Oded Revivi said on Monday.
A defence ministry statement confirmed that an Israel Lands Administration tender had been published for building the 40 homes following Barak’s approval of the plans "some months ago".
Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the accelerated construction of some 2,000 housing units in settlements that Israel has said it intends to keep as part of any future peace deal with the Palestinians.
The decision to step up building came in response to Palestinian efforts to seek United Nations statehood status after their frustration at a lack of progress in peace talks.
Expressions of Disappointment
The announcement drew expressions of disappointment and concern from Washington and the European Union who are part of the Quartet of peace mediators along with Russia and the United Nations.
An Israeli official said the building tenders were issued for housing in eastern parts of Jerusalem and for Efrat and Maale Adumim, Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank that Israel has indicated it wants to keep in a future peace deal.
Revivi said the site where construction was to begin shortly was part of Efrat’s master building plan and that while only 40 houses had currently been approved, there was room for a total of 500 homes there.
The Palestinians are looking to establish a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, land Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East War.
Israel later annexed East Jerusalem, a move that has not won international recognition.
Netanyahu has called to restart peace talks without preconditions but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says he will return to talks only after Israel totally freezes its settlement activity.
Closure of Walkway
Israel on Sunday night closed the Mughrabi ramp leading to the mosque compound in the Old City claiming public safety concerns in a move which was immediately condemned by Palestinians officials and Jordan, which is the custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem city council says the ramp poses a fire hazard and could collapse onto the women’s prayer section by the Western Wall.
But Muslim leaders fear its demolition could destabilise the mosque compound and accuse Israel of failing to coordinate its renovation with Waqf, which oversees Islamic heritage sites.
The closure prompted a swift response from Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina who warned it was another Israeli attack on efforts to revive the moribund peace talks which could shake up the region.
"These practices create a negative atmosphere in the entire region that could plunge the area into turmoil and tension," he warned.
"This is a serious step that shows the Zionist scheme of aggression again the Al-Aqsa mosque," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said.
"This is a violent act that amounts to a declaration of religious war on the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem," he said, calling for "Arab and Muslim mobilisation to stop this serious event."
And Jordan’s powerful Islamists denounced the decision as "flagrant aggression."
"This is a very dangerous move," the head of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hammam Said, said.
"The only solution against this entity (Israel) is resistance in order to protect the sanctity of the holy places against such flagrant aggression," he said.
There are 15 gates leading into the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, 10 of which are in use.
The Mughrabi Gate is the only access for non-Muslims to enter the site, meaning its closure will prevent both Jews and tourists from visiting until a replacement structure is built.
The ramp leads from the plaza by the Western Wall up to the adjoining compound, known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.
(Agencies via Al Jazeera)