Israeli watchdog group cites settlement rise during peace talks
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel pursued plans for nearly 14,000 new homes for settlers during now-suspended peace negotiations with the Palestinians, an Israeli watchdog group said on Tuesday as the original deadline for a deal expired.
In a statement on the end of the nine-month negotiating period, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian delegate to the U.S.-sponsored talks, cited settlement building in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem as a main reason for their failure.
Peace Now, which monitors and opposes Israeli settlement of land Palestinians seek for a state, said Israel finalized 4,868 home construction tenders in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem since the talks began in July - effectively a four-fold increase compared with recent years.
In a new report that coincided with the passing of the April 29 target date for a peace accord, the group also said Israeli authorities had processed plans, in various stages of approval, for another 8,983 settler homes while the negotiations were under way.
Israeli announcements, during the talks, of some of the projects stoked Palestinian anger, amplified by Erekat on Tuesday.
"Everything Israel did during the past nine months aimed at sabotaging Palestinian and international efforts to achieve the two-state solution," he said in the statement.
"To build settlements in occupied land, kill Palestinians and demolish hundreds of Palestinian homes is certainly not the behavior of a government that wants to end occupation but of a government that wants to turn occupation into annexation."
In a West Bank village on Tuesday, Israeli forces demolished several structures, including a mosque, which the military said were built without an Israeli permit in a live-fire training zone. Palestinians says such permits are almost impossible to obtain.
Israel suspended the peace talks last Thursday, a day after West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reached a unity agreement with one its most bitter enemies, the Islamist Hamas group that rules the Gaza Strip.
The pact, which followed numerous failed attempts to forge a new political partnership, envisages a unity government of non-political "technocrats" within five weeks and elections six months later.
Blaming Abbas for the negotiations' collapse, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Palestinian leader had to chose between peace with Israel or reconciliation with Hamas, which the Israeli and U.S. governments view as a terrorist group.
Erekat dismissed that argument.
"If this Israeli government were sincerely interested in peace, it would have taken Palestinian national reconciliation as an opportunity for peace rather than an opportunity for a new blame game," he said.
More than 500,000 Israelis have settled among 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel, along with the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Middle East war.
Most countries regard the settlements as illegal. Israel cites historical and biblical links to the West Bank and East Jerusalem and has said it intends to retain major settlement blocs in any future peace deal.
(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Angus MacSwan)