Israel will announce plans for new settlement construction next week, coinciding with the release of a third batch of Palestinian prisoners as part of peace talks, an official said on Thursday.
Palestinians have warned repeatedly that settlement building destroys the fragile US-brokered peace talks that resumed in July after a three-year hiatus.
“The Israeli government will announce tenders for new construction in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem which will coincide with the release of a third group of Palestinian prisoners,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Israeli media reported that the announcement would involve the construction of 1,400 houses in total.
According to Ma’ariv, Israeli government sources said that the plan would involve between 6-700 housing units in the East Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomi, while the rest would be built in West Bank settlements.
The comments come days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to push ahead with settlement construction despite calls for restraint by US Secretary of State John Kerry and the European Union.
“We will not stop, even for a moment, building our country and becoming stronger, and developing… the settlement enterprise,” Netanyahu told members of his right-wing Likud party last week.
Kerry, who has been fighting for the survival of the peace talks, has urged Netanyahu “to exercise maximum restraint in announcing new construction” Haaretz newspaper reported earlier this month.
Israel is due to release 26 Palestinian prisoners on Sunday, in line with commitments to the US-backed peace process which also called on both sides to negotiate for nine months.
Under the terms of the agreement, Israel committed to free 104 Palestinian prisoners and has already released 52 in two separate batches. The third group of inmates are to be freed on December 29 and a final batch is due to walk free in March 2014.
Two previous rounds of prisoner releases in August and October were accompanied by Israeli announcements of fresh construction on land the Palestinians want for a future state, provoking Palestinian fury.
In October plans for 1,500 Jewish settler homes in Arab East Jerusalem came to light almost immediately after Israel began freeing the second batch of 26 Palestinian prisoners.
Israel had likewise announced construction of more than 2,000 new settler homes in August, when it freed the first group of detainees.
Palestinian officials have angrily said Israeli settlement plans destroy the peace process and the international community has also denounced past construction moves.
Israeli media Thursday suggested that the new construction push is aimed at pacifying Netanyahu’s coalition partners following a surge of violence along the Israel-Gaza border and in the West Bank.
Maariv quoted an unnamed top official as saying Netanyahu had initially agreed a US call to delay the announcement of the new construction until after the prisoner releases.
But the prime minister changed his mind under pressure from his coalition partners so as not to send out a “signal of weakness” to the Palestinians from Israel.
More than 500,000 Israeli settlers live in settlements across the West Bank and East Jerusalem, in contravention of international law.
The internationally recognized Palestinian territories of which the West Bank and East Jerusalem form a part have been occupied by the Israeli military since 1967.
(Ma’an and Agencies – www.maannews.net)