Israel approves new east Jerusalem settlement

TIA GOLDENBERG Associated Press Published:

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel is pressing forward with construction in a new east Jerusalem settlement, a municipal official said Wednesday, part of a series of new building plans that have drawn worldwide rebuke, including from its closest ally, the United States.

The Jerusalem Planning Committee approved 2,612 housing units in the Givat Hamatos settlement on Jerusalem's southern rim, said City Councilor Pepe Alalu. The area, inhabited by a few dozen Jewish and Palestinian families who live in rundown trailers, would be the first new settlement to be built in east Jerusalem since 1997. Alalu, who voted against the project, said construction could begin in a year.

Critics consider Givat Hamatos a particularly problematic area to develop because, along with another contentious plan in an area known as E-1, it would hinder access to east Jerusalem from the West Bank. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

Israel announced the new building push as a response after the U.N. last month recognized a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem -- lands Israel captured in 1967 -- as a non-member observer.

The plans include thousands of homes for Jews in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, as well as preparations for construction in E-1.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly brushed off the international condemnations of his latest settlement plans. "We are committed to our capital, we are committed to peace and we will build in Jerusalem for all its residents," he said Wednesday.

Israeli critics have accused Netanyahu of backing the plans to pander to hard-line voters ahead of Jan. 22 parliamentary elections. Actual construction on most of the projects could be years away, making it easy for Netanyahu to court voters while leaving open the possibility of putting the projects back on hold after the election. The E-1 plan has been around for years, and has repeatedly been frozen under heavy pressure from the U.S.

Palestinians condemned the latest project.

"The Israeli settlement enterprise in the West Bank and east Jerusalem is killing the two-state solution, and we are taking the battle against this enterprise to the international community," Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki said Wednesday.

Wednesday's approval comes despite unusually harsh criticism from Washington, which on Tuesday accused Israel of engaging in a "pattern of provocative action."

The U.N. Security Council is expected to discuss the matter on Wednesday. The Palestinians believe that all of the council's members except the U.S. will support a resolution condemning the settlement plans. The U.S., despite its opposition to settlements, has historically protected Israel from U.N. condemnations, believing such actions do not contribute to peace.