US voices concern at Israel outpost authorisation

Homes in Bruchin (24 April 2012) Negotiations on a two-state solution stalled in 2010 following a dispute over settlement construction

The US has said it is concerned about reports that the Israeli government has decided to make legal under Israeli law three West Bank settlement outposts.

A state department spokeswoman said diplomats were "seeking clarification", but stressed they did "not think this is helpful" to the peace process.

The US does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity.

The Palestinians also condemned the decision to "formalise the status" of Bruchin, Rechelim and Sansana.

About 500,000 Jews live in more than 100 settlements built since Israel's 1967 occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

The settler outposts are also illegal under Israeli law and the government agreed to remove them under the 2003 Road Map peace plan.

'No changes on the ground'

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed a new committee, made up of four ministers, to look into outposts at Bruchin and Rechelim, in the north, and Sansana, near Hebron in the south.

The prime minister's office announced two days later that the committee had decided to "formalise the status" of the outposts, which have a total of about 830 residents.

Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly Israeli Cabinet meeting on 22 April The Israeli Prime Minister set up a ministerial committee to look at the outposts issue

A statement said the "three communities... were established in the 1990s following the decisions of past governments".

"The decision does not make any changes on the ground. It does not mean any expansion of existing settlements or establishment of new ones," an Israeli official told the BBC.

But US state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland voiced concern.

"We have raised this with the Israeli government and we are seeking clarification," she told reporters in Washington.

"You know where we are on settlements, we don't think this is helpful to the process and we don't accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity," she added.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague strongly condemned the decision on Wednesday, saying it set a "dangerous precedent".

"By seeking to entrench illegal settlements in the West Bank, as this decision does, the Israeli government risks sending the message that it is not serious about its stated commitment to the goal of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he said in a statement.

A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Mr Netanyahu had "pushed things to a dead end yet again".

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"We're ready to return to peace talks immediately if Netanyahu commits to stopping settlement construction and recognises the 1967 borders," Nabil Abu Rudeina told the Reuters news agency.

US-brokered negotiations on a two-state solution stalled in late 2010 following a dispute over settlement construction.

Israel's announcement came a week after President Abbas sent a letter to Mr Netanyahu asking that Israel freeze all settlement construction and accept the borders which were in place before the 1967 Middle East war as the basis for those of a future Palestine, with mutually agreed modifications.

Mr Netanyahu's office said last Tuesday that both sides were "committed to reach peace" and a reply to the letter would be sent within two weeks.

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