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Israel to build thousands of new settlement homes

Israel has confirmed plans to build 3,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. The move came hours after the General Assembly voted to grant the Palestinians nonmember status at the United Nations.

Israeli government officials have confirmed the plan, which was first reported by the Ha'aretz newspaper. An unnamed official quoted by the Reuters agency said the government had also decided to expedite the planning process for thousands of other homes in the so-called E1 area of East Jerusalem, which divides the northern and southern segments of the West Bank.

Until now, Israel had refrained from approving the construction of settlements in this region, as it would effectively divide the West Bank in two. Palestinians and others who oppose the construction of settlements there, argue that doing so would make it much more difficult to create a viable Palestinian state.

While there has been no official comment from the Israeli government about the settlement construction plan, on Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanjahu had alluded to consequences for Palestinians via the microblogging website Twitter.

"By going to the UN, the Palestinians have violated the agreements with Israel and Israel will act accordingly," Netanyahu's office wrote on his official Twitter feed.

Not surprisingly, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the plan, with the official Wafa news agency quoting a spokesman who described it as a “slap in the face of the whole world,which voted for a Palestinian state.”

US condemnation

Israel and the United States had vigorously opposed the Palestinians' bid to gain nonmember status at the United Nations. They were among just 9 countries to vote against the General Assembly resolution, which passed with 138 countries voting in favour and 41, including Germany, abstaining.

On Friday, however, Washington condemned Israel's decision to build the new housing units.

"We reiterate our longstanding opposition to settlements and East Jerusalem construction and announcements," US National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said. "We believe these actions are counterproductive and make it harder to resume direct negotiations or achieve a two-state solution."

US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said that Washington would continue in its efforts to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

"That's the only way that we are going to get to two states for two peoples with a sovereign, viable and independent Palestine living side by side in peace and security with a Jewish and democratic Israel," Nuland said.

Still in New York, Abbas also called for peace talks, but refused to lift the Palestinians demand that Israel first freeze its settlement activities.

"We are not setting any condition but there are at least 15 UN resolutions which consider settlement activity as illegal and an obstacle to peace which must be removed," Abbas said. "Why do (the Israelis) not stop settlement?"

Netanyahu has said Israel is willing to restart peace talks without preconditions.

pfd/jm (Reuters, dpa, AFP)