World News

Israel denies approving 300 new settlement homes

TALMON, West Bank (Reuters) - The Israeli government denied a media report Tuesday that it had authorized 300 new homes for a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank despite U.S. calls for a halt to settlement growth.

Army Radio reported that 60 new homes had been built in Talmon settlement and that the Defense Ministry, which oversees West Bank administration, had issued permits for 240 more.

An Israeli official said 30 buildings, each housing two residential units, had been added to Talmon under authorization issued nine months ago -- before the current right-leaning government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office.

“These houses have been completed, and there has been no approval given for new houses,” the official, who declined to be identified, said in a statement.

A Reuters photographer saw a handful of recently built homes inside central Talmon, already the site of several hundred dwellings. On the outskirts, bulldozers had leveled an area where billboards advertised “a new stage of two-family houses.”

It was not clear when the leveling work took place. No builders were visible there Tuesday, and the construction firm, contacted by telephone, declined to discuss the project.

U.S. President Barack Obama has pressed Israel to halt settlement activity as part of a bid to revive peace talks under which the Palestinians would gain statehood alongside the Jewish state.

Netanyahu has refused to declare a settlement freeze arguing some construction should continue to match population growth. Palestinians see a land grab, but the Obama administration has signaled it could allow some housing projects already under way to continue as part of an overall moratorium deal with Israel.

Half a million Jews live in settlement blocs and smaller outposts built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, territories Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war, and which are home to some 2.5 million Palestinians.

The World Court has ruled all the settlements illegal.

“The settlement expansion is a continuation of the Israeli policy that destroys the efforts being exerted, especially by President Obama,” said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel says the Palestinians, divided between Abbas’s U.S.-backed administration in the West Bank and the rival Hamas Islamists who control the Gaza Strip, have not done enough to stop violence against the Jewish state.

But successive Israeli governments have vowed to keep settlement blocs under any peace deal.

Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jon Boyle