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Defying West, Israel moves ahead with new settlements

Israeli officials announced this week that they would press on with a surge in new settlement construction, defying criticism from Western governments that the construction would doom fledgling hopes that Israeli and Palestinian leaders might reach a peace deal.

Israel’s governmental and municipal planning committees are weighing several projects this week that would total nearly 5,000 new homes in East Jerusalem settlements.

Palestinian officials said that several of the projects were slated to be built on key contentious plots of land that would cut off entire neighborhoods from what Palestinians hope will be a contiguous future state.

"The slow process of cutting Palestine into pieces will be complete if Israel goes forward with these developments," said Xavier Abu Eid, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority government in Ramallah, West Bank. "It is a Christmas gift for Bethlehem that this biblical city will be the first to be cut off from Jerusalem."

Israeli officials are expected to give a green light in the coming days to Givat Hamatos, a new settlement that in its first stage will include 2,610 housing units on a strategic hilltop between the cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Hagit Ofran, a spokeswoman for the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now, said that building in Givat Hamatos was a "game changer."

"By building here you complete the circle of settlements that have enveloped Bethlehem," she said.

Standing on the crest of the hill where Givat Hamatos will be built, the complicated geography of the area is visible to the naked eye. Side by side are the successive hills of Israel’s East Jerusalem settlements, with the Palestinian city of Bethlehem sandwiched between them.

Israel’s East Jerusalem settlements are considered illegal under international law, as are all buildings Israel constructs over the 1967 Green Line. But successive Israeli administrations have given East Jerusalem settlements special status, pointing out that Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 Mideast War. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has said Israel treats its East Jerusalem settlements as part of the greater Jerusalem municipality – as one “united city.”

In an interview earlier this year, Barkat said it was within Israel’s rights to build “across Jerusalem” and that international criticism of building projects was misplaced.

"Settlement activity is unilateral and is completely adverse to the continued viability of a two-state solution and the possibility for our people to continue to exist. It’s an attack on our people’s right to life, essentially," Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told Reuters on Monday.

The White House has joined several European countries in criticizing Israel’s new settlement construction in Givat Hamatos, as well as other East Jerusalem areas, as harmful to peace talks. In addition to Givat Hamatos, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has signaled that Israel might build on E1, a 12,000-acre plot that serves as the main thoroughfare connecting the north and south West Bank.

Other East Jerusalem settlement plans slated for this week include Ramat Shlomo, which Israeli officials green-lighted Monday for 1,500 additional housing units, and Gilo, for which Israeli officials will discuss building 1,000 new homes in a Jerusalem planning committee meeting later this week.

"The building of new homes in Jerusalem is based on old planning and zoning," Ofir Gendelman, a spokesman for Netanyahu, wrote on his Twitter feed Tuesday.

"No country needs or asks permission to build in its own capital," he said.

Israeli officials have confirmed that the recent push in settlement construction came in response to the Palestinians’ successful bid in the United Nations last month for nonmember status. Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said settlement construction had been frozen while Western governments tried to convince Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who’s known familiarly as Abu Mazen, to abandon the U.N. bid.

"We said, ’We won’t build, so as not to give Abu Mazen an excuse to go to the U.N. and an excuse not to come to the table,’ ” Yaalon told Army Radio, "After he did what he did . . . we removed these restrictions from ourselves."

He added that Israel would "continue to build in accordance with the state of Israel’s strategic interests."

Netanyahu’s political rivals have suggested that the Israeli premier is pushing the settlement construction as an election ploy to appeal to his right-wing constituency. Israel will hold national elections Jan. 22.