Middle East

Israel backs new Jewish settlement homes

A picture taken on April 24, 2012 shows the Jewish outpost of Bruchin, near the West Bank city of Nablus
The issue of settlement-building halted the last direct talks

The Israeli government has approved the construction of nearly 1,200 new homes in Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian areas.

Construction Minister Uri Ariel said they would be built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to meet the needs of Israeli citizens.

It comes three days before peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians are due to resume in Jerusalem.

The issue of settlement-building halted the last direct talks.

These collapsed in September 2010.

In order to get the Palestinians to agree to the talks, Israel approved the release of more than 100 Palestinian prisoners. The first group is due to be freed on 13 August.

The BBC's Kevin Connolly in Jerusalem says that announcing the settlement construction at the same time may be intended as a sop to right-wing supporters of the government who oppose those prisoner releases.

About 500,000 Jews live in more than 100 settlements built since Israel's 1967 occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Palestinians want to establish their state in those areas, as well as the Gaza Strip.

Mr Ariel said 793 apartments would be built in east Jerusalem and 394 in several large West Bank settlements.

Plots are to be offered in Har Homa and Gilo, on East Jerusalem's southern outskirts, and in Pisgat Zeev, on the city's northern edge.

Tenders will also be invited for homes in Ariel, in the northern West Bank, in Maaleh Adumim, east of Jerusalem, and in Efrata and Beitar Ilit, around Bethlehem.

A housing ministry spokesman told the BBC that construction would begin in one to two years' time.

Mr Ariel said in a statement: "No country in the world takes orders from other countries [about] where it can build and where it can't.

"We will continue to market housing and build in the entire country... This is the right thing at the present time, for Zionism and for the economy.''

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had previously insisted he would not resume talks without an Israeli settlement freeze, but relented during mediation by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Settlements are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi condemned the Israeli announcement.

"We believe that Israel is deliberately sending a message to the US, to the rest of the world that regardless of any attempt at launching negotiations, 'we are going to press ahead with stealing more land, building more settlements and destroying the two-state-solution'," she told the BBC.

"This is an extremely dangerous policy, and if left unchecked it certainly would lead to greater conflict and the destruction of all chances of peace."