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Agence France-Presse

Israel to OK Massive New East Jerusalem Settlement Project


A view of Gilo, a Jewish settlement on land Israel captured in 1967 and annexed to its Jerusalem municipality, is seen from the West Bank town of Beit Jala January 16, 2011. A plan to build 1,400 new homes for Jews in Gilo could be approved as early as next week by Israel's Jerusalem municipality, a city council member said on Sunday. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

JERUSALEM - - Israel is to approve 1,400 new settler homes in
east Jerusalem, media and the local council said on Sunday, defying
pressure to halt settlement building that has stalled peace talks with
the Palestinians.

The massive construction project will add homes to the annexed east
Jerusalem settlement neighborhood of Gilo and is expected to receive
final approval from the district planning commission within days.

The project is likely to spark condemnation from the international
community, which has repeatedly called on Israel to avoid new building
projects in mainly Arab east Jerusalem.

Jerusalem's municipal council in a statement confirmed the project,
but said it was part of a long-standing policy to expand housing
availability for the city's Jewish and Arab residents.

"There has been no change in the policy towards construction in
Jerusalem for the last 40 years," it said. "The Jerusalem municipality
continues to promote both Jewish and Arab construction in the city."

Gilo is one of the first and largest Jewish neighborhoods in
Jerusalem that Israel has built on land captured in the 1967 Six-Day
War. It lies on the southern edge of the city, next to the West Bank
town of Bethlehem.

The project drew immediate criticism from Israeli left-wing politicians and activists, as well as Palestinian condemnation.

"We strongly condemn this Israeli escalation and continued decisions
in the area of settlements and the imposition of new facts on the
ground," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP.

"I think it's the time for the US administration to officially hold
the Israeli government responsible for the collapse of the peace

US-brokered peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians
have deadlocked over the issue of Jewish settlement in the occupied West
Bank and east Jerusalem.

The Palestinians walked out of direct peace talks three weeks after
they started in September when Israel balked at extending a 10-month
partial freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank.

They refuse to negotiate with Israel while it builds on land they want for a future Palestinian state.

Yariv Oppenheimer, the secretary general of Peace Now, an Israeli
NGO opposed to settlement building, said he was "deeply concerned" by
the planned project.

"Not only will it damage the chances of reaching an agreement on the
Jerusalem issue, it might also create an international problem for
Israel in its legitimacy abroad," he told AFP.

But Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz of the
rightwing settler party Habait Hayehudi said the project was legitimate
and Israel would not stop construction in the Holy City.

"Even if there was a moratorium (on settlement building), it would
not include Jerusalem," he said ahead of Israel's weekly cabinet

"It's part of Jerusalem, so there is no moratorium whatsoever and Israel is going to continue building in its capital."

Elisha Peleg, a municipal council member from the rightwing Likud
party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also praised the project,
saying Gilo "is an integral part of Jerusalem."

"There can be no argument in Israel over construction in that neighborhood," he told Israeli radio.

In March 2010, the interior ministry announced a plan to build 1,600
settler homes in Ramat Shlomo, an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in east

The announcement, which came as US Vice President Joe Biden was
visiting Israel, provoked fierce American opposition and soured
relations with Washington for several months.

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