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Israel approves 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem

Palestinians and Israeli anti-settlement group condemn construction in disputed area

Associated Press, Thursday 11 August 2011 14.14 BST

Palestinian labourers working on a new housing project in east Jerusalem in 2010. Now Israel is to build more apartments in the disputed area of the city

Photograph: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

Israel has authorised the construction of 1,600 flats in disputed East Jerusalem and will approve 2,700 more in the next few days, officials have said, detailing a plan that could complicate diplomatic efforts to dissuade Palestinians from declaring statehood at the UN.

The announcement drew immediate criticism from the Palestinians, and from Israel's leading anti-settlement group, which accused the government of seizing on mass protests over housing costs to give economic justification to building in the city. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office knew the construction plans were moving ahead, said an interior ministry spokesman Roi Lachmanovich. An earlier approval for the 1,600-flat project embarrassed Netanyahu and caused a diplomatic rift with the US because it coincided with a visit to Israel by Joe Biden, the US vice-president.

Palestinians oppose all Israeli construction in East Jerusalem because it chips away at their hopes to establish the capital of a future state in the holy city. The approval for the flats could also create problems for Washington, which is trying to persuade the Palestinians to abandon their statehood bid and enter into negotiations with Israel.

A senior Palestinian official, Saeb Erekat, accused Israel of favouring settlements over peace: "We call upon the US administration to support our endeavour at the UN because the only way to preserve the two-state solution now is the admittance of the state of Palestine," he said.

Lachmanovich said the flats were necessary to address a housing shortage in the city. Construction may not begin for years because building plans will have to go through multiple approval processes.

The Peace Now anti-settlement group accused the government of "cynically" exploiting a sweeping grassroots uprising sparked by high housing prices to cement its plans to build flats in Jerusalem's contested eastern sector.

It was also unlikely to win much favour with Israel's closest ally, the United States, which opposes the Palestinians' statehood bid and, like Israel, says negotiations on Jerusalem and other core issues are the only way forward.

Jerusalem's fate "needs to be negotiated between the two parties", said Kurt Hoyer, spokesman for the US embassy in Tel Aviv. "Unilateral actions on either side that appear to prejudice the outcome of those negotiations we find counterproductive."

On Tuesday, Washington rebuked Israel for advancing separate plans to build 930 flats in another part of East Jerusalem.

The Palestinians refuse to negotiate with the Netanyahu government as long as it continues to build in the West Bank and east Jerusalem – territories that would form the core of their future independent state.

About 500,000 Jews have made their homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank since the six-day war in 1967.

Adding to the potential for political tension is the Palestinians' plan for even a symbolic endorsement of statehood by the UN.

Under the plan, marches and rallies inside West Bank cities are permitted, but the gatherings will be confined to city limits. Demonstrators will be kept away from flashpoints like Israeli settlements and military checkpoints. Palestinian police would ring West Bank cities to keep protesters far from Israelis.