Israel backs settlement expansion

It says the decision to build 455 housing units has been authorised by Defence Minister Ehud Barak.

This is the first new government-approved construction project in the West Bank since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to power in March.

It comes despite a US pressure to halt building at settlements.

Palestinians have ruled out resumption of peace talks with Israel until a complete freeze to the settlements.

A senior Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said Israel's decision further undermined its credibility as a partner for peace. "Israel's decision to approve the construction nullifies any effect that a settlement freeze, when and if announced, will have," Mr Erekat said.

Mitchell's visit

"Defence Minister Ehud Barak has authorised the construction of 455 housing units in settlement blocs," the Israeli defence ministry said in a statement.

It updated its earlier statement that said Mr Barak had approved the building of 366 housing units.

The homes will be built in six settlements - all of which are included in the settlement blocs that Israel wants to keep under any peace agreement, according to Israel's Haaretz newspaper.

It says the settlements include Har Gilo, Modiin Ilit and Ariel.

Last week, Israeli officials announced that Mr Netanyahu would give the go-ahead for the new housing units.

The issue is expected to be discussed when Mr Netanyahu's aides meet US special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, later this week.

BBC Jerusalem correspondent Tim Franks says there is little doubt that the government of Benjamin Netanyahu is feeling pressure from the settlers - who dismissed this latest approval to build as insultingly limited.

But today's announcement can only complicate a possible resumption of meaningful peace talks with the Palestinians.

The Americans, who are trying to broker new peace negotiations, have already expressed their displeasure.

They say they are trying to build credibility across the Middle East in a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The question for the US special envoy is whether he will, in the end, accept the Israeli version of a settlement freeze, our correspondent says.

Close to 500,000 Jews live in more than 100 settlements built since Israel's 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem.

Some 2,500 housing units are currently under construction.

The settlements are illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.


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