The Palestinian Authority on Friday accused Israel of sabotaging the peace talks by advancing plans for 2,372 settlers homes in eight West Bank settlements.
"The Israelis are trying to push the talks to a dead end with this systematic escalation of continuing settlement activity,” said a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Nabil Abu Rudaineh.
He spoke two days after Israel published minutes from a February 19 meeting of the Civil Administration’s Higher Planning Council on the Interior Ministry’s website which spokes of the bureaucratic steps underway for these new settler homes.
Plans advanced at the meeting must go through more bureaucratic hoops. But plans for 296 new units in Beit El, 694 in Alei Zahav and 31 in Almog are almost finalized. New units in these three settlements have been approved for validation but have not been validated.
The plans for 839 new homes in Ariel, 353 in the Shvut Rachel neighborhood of Shiloh and 65 in Shavei Shomron were approved for deposit and are further away from being finalized. Plans for 38 homes in Kochav Ya’acov and 56 in Givat Ze’ev were deposited on Wednesday, according to Peace Now.
News of the plans comes at a sensitive time in the peace process, as the United States struggles to keep negotiations from ending in April. Palestinians have said that continued settlement activity destroys the peace process and have asked Israel to halt such activity.
Israel has consistently refused to cede that request and instead offered to release 104 Palestinian prisoners involved in terror attacks against Israelis during the nine month negotiating period that began in August 2013 and ends in April. Israel has already freed 78 prisoners and the last release is assumed to be scheduled for the end of March. But Israeli politicians have threatened to derail the last release unless Palestinians agree to continue negotiations.
Past releases have been coupled with announcements of new settlers home either by advancing plans for authorizing construction.
Still Meretz Party head MK Zahava Gal-On said that these new settler housing plans were akin to “exploding the diplomatic process.”
On one hand, Gal-On said Netanyahu has made every effort to make the Palestinians appear as if they are refusing to participate in the peace process. “On the other hand our government is doing everything it can to destroy the process by continuing to build in the settlements.”
Out of the 2,372 units under design, 783 of the homes are for five settlements, considered to be isolated because they are outside the route of the security barrier. These include the settlements of Beit El, Kochav Ya'acov, Almog, Shvut Rachel and Shavei Shomron.
It should be noted, however, that the 296 units for Beit El close to finalization were part of a pledge Netanyahu made to settlers in exchange for a peaceful evacuation of 30 homes in the Ulpana outpost in June 2012.
Plans for a new neighborhood in Ariel, the fourth-largest West Bank settlement, are particularly significant because the city of 18,000 residents has seen little growth in the past decade.
Only 821 homes have been built there since 2002. This new project of 839 new units, is the largest initiated there in over a decade.
Ariel is considered by Israel to be a settlement bloc and Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, have said they want it to be included in Israel’s final borders.
Its status is tenuous, however, because it is located 16 km. over the pre-1967 lines, in the heart of Samaria.
It is included in the planned route of the security barrier, but many have speculated that the failure to construct that portion of the fence does not bode well for the future of the city.
Plans for 694 new units for Alei Zahav are also significant. The settlement which is located in Samaria within the route of the barrier and only five km. over the pre-1967 lines, has a population of 500. But the addition of 694 units would transform it from a small settlement to a mid-size one.
Peace Now said of the plans, “We are seeing once again that Minister Ariel (Housing and Construction) and Minister Yaalon (Defense) are trying desperately to ruin the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, this time not through their irresponsible remarks, but through actions and creation of facts on the ground. The promotion of almost 2400 housing units in the settlements at such a sensitive time will expand dramatically the settlements and is intended to pressure the Palestinians to resign from the current talks. It is upon the Minister Livni and Lapid to demand a stop to this wild behavior and wild promotion of plans.”Reuters contributed to this report.