December 5, 2013
Israel pushes plans for 3,500 settler homes after prisoners freed
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered officials to press ahead with plans to build 3,500 more homes for Jewish settlers, hours after Israel freed 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of US-brokered peace efforts.
Netanyahu's step was seen as a way to placate hardliners who criticised him as the inmates, convicted of killing Israelis, basked in a heroes' welcome from hundreds of relatives and well-wishers in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli leader issued instructions to market 1,500 settler homes and pursue plans for a further 2,000, an official in Netanyahu's office said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Israel's Interior Ministry announced earlier in the day that the 1,500 units would be built in Ramat Shlomo, a settlement in an area of the occupied West Bank that Israel considers part of Jerusalem.
Those plans were first announced in 2010, clouding a visit to Israel at the time by US Vice President Joe Biden, who condemned the project, which was subsequently shelved.
Israel announced last December it would proceed with the construction, but froze the move again before a visit by US President Barack Obama in March this year.
The other 2,000 settler housing units would be built in other parts of the West Bank, the official said, adding that "Netanyahu had pushed the settlement plans because of the prisoner release." A senior official said those 2,000 units were only in the planning stages at this time.
The Palestinians, who want to establish a state in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, territories captured by Israel in a 1967 war, condemned the settlement plans.
"This policy is destructive for the peace process," said Nabil Abu Rdeineh, a spokesman for Abbas.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised Israel's release of the prisoners, but condemned the settlement activity as "contrary to international law and constitutes an obstacle to peace," a statement from his office said.