Israel presses ahead with settlement expansion plans
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel is pressing on with plans for more than 1,000 new homes in two West Bank settlements, officials said on Thursday, moves that could complicate U.S. efforts to persuade Palestinians, seeking a construction freeze, to return to peace talks.
An Israeli settlers' council has asked Israeli zoning authorities in the occupied territory to approve the building of 550 housing units in Bruchin, an unauthorized outpost granted legal status by Israel last year.
The extent of Bruchin's expansion, where some 350 settlers live, had not been disclosed previously.
The officials said zoning authorities also received a plan from the council for the construction of 537 dwellings in the settlement of Itamar, along with the retroactive approval of 130 homes built there without permits.
The Itamar building proposal was announced in 2012 and approved by then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, after an Israeli couple and three of their children were killed in the settlement by two Palestinian attackers in 2011.
Israeli settlement expansion on occupied land that Palestinians seek for a future state alongside Israel has been the main stumbling block to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's latest attempts to revive peace talks that collapsed in 2010.
"The continuation of settlement activity is killing the two- state solution," Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah told Reuters in response to news of the proposed housing projects. "The international community must take action before this solution dies."
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has so far linked a resumption of peace talks to a total freeze in settlement construction, which Palestinians see as establishing facts on the ground that deny them land they need for a viable state.
Israel and the United States have urged Abbas to return to the negotiations without preconditions.
Opponents of the two construction plans now have two months in which to lodge objections against them. Further authorization by the current defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, is required before building permits can be issued.
Some 500,000 Israelis have settled in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas Israel captured along with the Gaza Strip in the 1967 conflict. About 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
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