JERUSALEM – Israel on Friday approved the construction of 3,000 homes in Jewish settlements on Israeli-occupied lands, a government official said, drawing swift condemnation from the Palestinians a day after their successful U.N. recognition bid.
The Palestinians reiterated their refusal to resume negotiations with Israel while building continues. With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently poised for re-election to another four-year term and insisting that any negotiations begin without preconditions, prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian partition deal appear to be going into deep freeze.
The United Nations voted overwhelmingly to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem as a non-member observer state on Thursday, setting off jubilant celebrations among Palestinians.
Israel fiercely objected to the U.N. upgrade, saying Palestinian statehood could only come from direct negotiations and unilateral moves would harm that prospect. The Palestinians said the U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state in the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war was an attempt to salvage a possible peace deal.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to negotiate with Israel while settlement construction continues, saying Israel's settlement expansion on war-won land was making a partition deal increasingly difficult.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned Israel's announcement, saying it was "defying the whole international community and insisting on destroying the two-state solution." He said the Palestinian leadership is studying its options.
Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh also insisted earlier Friday the Palestinian position hadn't changed, saying settlement building "is not just illegal, it's against the resolution."
More than 500,000 Israelis have moved to the West Bank and east Jerusalem since 1967. Israel unilaterally withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but continues to partially control access. The Islamic militant group Hamas seized control of the territory from Abbas' control in 2007 and recently gained popularity after holding its own following an eight-day Israeli military offensive aimed at stopping rocket fire.
The Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the sensitive issue publicly, said Israel decided to build 3,000 apartments for Jews in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. He said the government also decided to begin preparations for construction in other areas of the West Bank, including the so-called E-1 corridor that connects Jerusalem with the settlement bloc of Maaleh Adumim.
Construction there would pose a major obstacle for Palestinian statehood by cutting off east Jerusalem from the West Bank. Successive U.S. administrations have pressured Israel not to build in E-1 where a development plan calls for at least 3,500 homes.
Danny Seidemann, a lawyer for Ir Amim, an Israeli group that supports coexistence in Jerusalem, said construction did not appear imminent and the Israeli announcement contained "quite a lot of drama."
"There's an element of sticking it to the Palestinians," he said, adding that plans in E-1 were not only a slap to the Palestinians but to the Americans who oppose them too. "E-1 is the Judgment Day weapon," he said of the strategic impact of construction in that area.
Yesh Din, an Israeli rights group, called the Israeli decision "collective punishment" and called on Israel to retract its move.
"Israel should have understood by now that such behavior ... will no longer be tolerated by the international community," the group's executive director, Haim Erlich said.
Earlier this month, Israel said it was pushing forward construction of 1,200 new homes in Jewish settlements, in an apparent warning to the Palestinians to rethink their U.N. plan. Israel fears the Palestinians will use their upgraded status to confront Israel in international bodies and pressure it to make concessions.
Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the one-time chief negotiator with the Palestinians, also slammed the decision.
"The decision at the U.N. on a Palestinian state is bad for Israel and so is Netanyahu's response," said Livni, who this week formed a new party to compete in Jan. 22 parliamentary elections. "The decision to build thousands of housing units as punishment to the Palestinians only punishes Israel ... the unnecessary statement only isolates Israel further."
In the U.N., only nine states opposed the Palestinian bid, including Israel and the United States, while 138 supported it.
The vote granted Abbas an overwhelming international endorsement for his key position: establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. Netanyahu opposes a full pullback to the 1967 lines.
The Palestinians turned to the U.N. after two decades of on-again, off-again talks.
Netanyahu dismissed the U.N. vote as meaningless and accused Abbas of delivering a "defamatory and venomous" U.N. speech "full of mendacious propaganda" against Israel.
Laub reported from Ramallah, West Bank.