JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel published tenders on Friday for the construction of 450 new housing units in occupied Palestinian territory, a move that critics denounced as a political gesture ahead of a March general election.
Ariel Rosenberg, spokesman for Israel’s Housing Ministry, said the government was simply remarketing tenders that had failed to sell when they were initially offered last year.
Israel goes to the polls on March 17, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeking a fourth term in office. A number of groups, including Netanyahu’s own Likud party, are battling to secure pro-settler votes at the ballot.
“Once again, Palestinian lives, rights and lands are being violated in the service of Israeli election campaigns,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The tenders envisage construction in a number of locations, including near the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron, and several enclaves in the highly sensitive Jerusalem area.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department criticized the planned construction.
“We believe that settlements are illegitimate and counterproductive to achieving a two-state outcome. We have deep concerns about these highly contentious construction announcements,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
“They will have detrimental effects on the ground, inflame already-heightened tensions with the Palestinians and further isolate Israel internationally,” she told reporters.
In addition to the published tenders for the planned 450 units, authorities have submitted plans for the construction of 93 new homes in the East Jerusalem settlement of Gilo, anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now said.
The group called the wave of bids “a pre-election grab to establish facts on the ground” and said it risked worsening relations between Israel and the United States before a planned speech to Congress by Netanyahu on March 3.
“After embarrassing the Obama administration with the invitation to the Congress, Netanyahu adds another slam in the face of the Americans, showing no respect to Israel’s closest ally,” Peace Now said.
U.S. President Barack Obama has declined to see Netanyahu in March, saying it would be “inappropriate” to do so just ahead of the parliamentary election.
Israel, citing historical and Biblical links to the territory, has created homes for more than 500,000 Israelis on land it seized in a 1967 war, including the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Palestinians say the land belongs to them and want it as part of a future, independent state. Years of negotiations have repeatedly failed to secure a peace treaty.
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; editing by Crispian Balmer and Matthew Lewis