JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s Defense Ministry said on Monday it had approved construction of 50 new homes at a West Bank settlement as part of a plan for 1,450 housing units, an expansion that defies a U.S. call for a settlement freeze.
News of the planned building work emerged hours before Defense Minister Ehud Barak left for the United States for talks aimed at narrowing a rift with Washington over settlements.
He will meet President Barack Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, in New York on Tuesday, Barak’s office said.
An affidavit submitted by the Defense Ministry to the Supreme Court outlined plans to relocate settlers from Migron, an outpost built in the West Bank without Israeli government permission, to the settlement of Adam, north of Jerusalem.
According to the document, a response to a court case brought by the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now, a master plan for Adam calls for the construction of 1,450 homes there.
But the ministry said it had given the go-ahead for the construction of only 50 of the dwellings and any additional units would require its separate approval.
Separately, Israel went public with a plan to expropriate 139 sq. kms (54 sq. miles) of West Bank land, including shoreline exposed by the receding Dead Sea, saying it would give Palestinians 45 days to contest the decision in court.
Hatem Abdel-Qader, Palestinian minister for Jerusalem affairs, denounced what he said would be “the largest area of land ever confiscated by Israel in one go since 1967,” when the West Bank and East Jerusalem were captured from Jordan in a war.
Obama has pressed Israel to halt settlement activity as part of a bid to revive peace talks under which the Palestinians would gain statehood.
In a rare dispute between Israel and its main ally, the United States, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to declare a settlement freeze, saying some construction should continue to match population growth within the enclaves.
Some 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Palestinians say settlements, deemed illegal by the World Court, could deny them a viable and contiguous state.
Underscoring tensions, Palestinians said settlers raided the West Bank village of Asira al-Qiblya, firing guns at the windows of buildings. Two Palestinians were injured, said Ghasan Daghlas, an official in nearby Nablus, quoting the villagers.
An Israeli military spokesman quoted settlers as saying the incident began with a Palestinian arson attack on nearby Yitzhar settlement. Settlers tried to douse the flames and were stoned by Palestinians, he said, adding that a settler was hurt.
The spokesman said he had no knowledge of live rounds being fired, saying troops called to quell the disturbance had used “riot-dispersal gear” — usually a reference to rubber bullets.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated his refusal to resume negotiations with Israel until it froze settlement.
“We won’t accept the continuation of settlements,” he said.
Abbas also urged Netanyahu to drop his conditions for the creation of a Palestinian state, which include international guarantees it would have no army and a demand the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
“Israel should accept the two-state vision and not put conditions that would render the issue meaningless,” Abbas said.
Barak left open the possibility of a limited, temporary halt to construction in settlements in comments he made on Sunday in response to an Israeli newspaper report that he would propose a three-month moratorium.
Barak has also spoken of couching a Palestinian deal within a wider Israeli-Arab peace accord.
A goal of the Israeli-U.S. negotiations is “advancing a process for a comprehensive regional settlement in the Middle East,” Barak’s office quoted him as saying in a statement.
Peace Now said some 2,500 settlement homes are currently under construction in the West Bank.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah and Joseph Nasr in Jerusalem; Editing by Ralph Boulton