The Israeli government has expanded a list of settlements eligible for extra public funding. The move comes just days after the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet on Sunday approved the expansion of the number of settlements on a "national priorities" list, which makes them eligible for development funding above and beyond their regular budgets.
The number of settlements in the revised list includes 91 settlements on land captured by Israel during the 1967 war - six more than were on the last version of the list, approved in 2012.
Israeli settlements built on occupied land are regarded as illegal by the World Court and most of the international community.
The issue is particularly sensitive for the Palestinians, who seek to establish their own state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. They had long refused to reopen peace negotiations with Israel over the government's refusal to impose a freeze on settlement construction. They only agreed to re-enter talks after US Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a deal that is to see Israel release 104 Palestinian prisoners over the next few months.
Not surprisingly, Palestinian officials reacted to the news of Sunday's Israeli cabinet decision with dismay.
"This is exactly what Israel wants, have a process for its own sake, and at the same time have a free hand to destroy the objective of the process," Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team told the Associated Press. "This will have a destructive impact (on the talks), and it seems to me it's up to the sponsors, the United States and the international community, to make Israel desist immediately."
Nabil Abu Radainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the decision, telling the Reuters news agency that it "put obstacles in the way of US-backed efforts."
There was also criticism from within Israel, with the settlement watchdog group Peace Now saying that three of the settlements added to the list had begun as rogue settlements and were only legalized later. It said the the move "calls into question whether this government is truly ready to negotiate in good faith."
Four members of Netanyahu's cabinet indicated their displeasure by abstaining from Sunday's vote.
"To include settlements that until recently were illegal…I think it is not the time, politically speaking and socioeconomically speaking," Environment Minister Amir Peretz said in an interview with Israel Radio.
pfd/lw (AFP, Reuters, AP)