Israel ‘eyes long term plans’ to build 24,000 more settler homes

Israel ‘eyes long term plans’ to build 24,000 more settler homes
Israel has long term plans to build some 24,000 extra settler homes on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, according to the anti-settlement group Peace Now. Tenders cover highly sensitive land around Jerusalem stoking fears of peace talk disruption.

One plan called for construction in a stretch of land located between Jerusalem and Ramalla, which is the seat of the Palestinian government.

The US State Department said that it had been taken by surprise over the plans and was "deeply concerned."

"We were surprised by it and we are seeking explanation from the Israeli government. It was not discussed in advance. We don’t recognize the legitimacy of settlements," said spokeswoman Jen Psaki.  

The group Peace Now issued a statement on Tuesday declaring that the housing ministry had issued tenders and drawn up plans to construct the extra settlements. However, no actual building work is “imminent” according to the scheme.

“With tenders for planning, what we are seeing is a very early stage that can open the door for construction not in the short term, but several years down the road,” the group said in the statement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to backtrack on the plans on Tuesday night, when he reprimanded Housing Minister Uri Ariel, and instructed him to re-examine the tenders for the new settlement units.

The planned project is divided into 19,786 housing units on the West Bank and a further 4,000 in East Jerusalem. The housing units in the West Bank have a price tag of nearly $13 million, according to Haaretz. "This is a record," Peace Now director Yariv Oppenheimer told AFP.

The plans include the possible construction of 1,200 housing units in the controversial E1 area, located adjacent to East Jerusalem. Anonymous Israeli ‘political sources’ declared that when Netanyahu got wind of the plans for E1, he demanded that all construction be halted there.

Israel is currently in the process of attempting to restart peace talks with the Palestinians and the news seemed certain to halt the slow steps towards progress that have been taken in recent months.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas warned on Tuesday that the peace process would be over unless tenders for the nearly 20,000 new settler homes were canceled. Saeb Erakat, a Palestinian negotiator, confirmed to the AFP that Abbas had instructed him to pass on a formal ultimatum to exit the talks to the Quartet -- the European Union, Russia, the UN and the US.

"If Israel does not go back on its latest construction plans for the settlements, that will spell a formal declaration of the end of the peace process," Erakat quoted Abbas as saying in his declaration.

Peace talks resumed again in July following a three year hiatus and as yet minimal progress has been made. US Secretary of State John Kerry appealed to Israel to restrict settlement building as much as possible in order not to hinder the progress of the discussions.

“The issuing of tenders for planning is unequivocal evidence that Netanyahu intends to prevent the real chances of a negotiated agreement and a two-state solution,” said Peace Now. The organization continued that it would now make it “even more difficult for the Palestinians to remain at the negotiating table.” 

A Housing Ministry spokesperson said that the tenders are a “basis for building plans” and that only a small fraction of the blueprints ever lead to construction.

“They all still have to go through lengthy legal procedures before building starts,” said Rosenberg.

An official Palestinian statement has not yet been released regarding the plans.

Israel claims that it has both historic and biblical links to the lands upon which it is building settlements, with Israeli

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is accusing the Palestinians of creating an artificial crisis over of the matter. Palestinians, meanwhile, are concerned that Netanyahu’s persistence will stand in the way of Palestinian self-determination and statehood.

“The talks are only for show. Behind the scenes, the government plans to destroy all chance of the two-state solution,” said Oppenheimer.

The majority of countries recognize the Israeli settlements as illegal under international law.