(AFP) – Jan 15, 2008
JERUSALEM (AFP) — Israel has begun constructing 66 new homes in an east Jerusalem settlement, according to an AFP correspondent who visited the area on Tuesday, in a move likely to anger Palestinians.
The development comes as Israel and the Palestinians are engaged in the most serious peace talks in years aimed at solving the thorniest issues of the Middle East conflict, including the future status of Jerusalem.
Infrastructure work for new homes is under way in Maaleh Hazeitim, in the Ras al-Amud area of east Jerusalem which Israel occupied and annexed in the 1967 war and which Palestinians want as the capital of their future state.
"We are building 66 new apartments in three buildings," said David Ben Hamo, the manager of the construction site where a cornerstone was laid in a ceremony on Sunday.
"We have all the necessary papers and authorisation for the construction work," he told AFP.
Some 60 Jewish families already live in the neighbourhood, built on land bought 15 years ago by US millionaire Irwin Moskowitz. Armed security men guard both the construction site and nearby buildings.
A similar project to build more than 300 homes in the Jewish neighbourhood of Har Homa in east Jerusalem infuriated Palestinians when it was announced in early December, less than a week after the formal revival of peace talks.
The settlement construction also drew strong criticism from the United States, which has backed the renewed peace talks which were relaunched at an international peace conference in the US city of Annapolis last November.
Meanwhile Defence Minister Ehud Barak has written to Israeli administrators in the occupied West Bank reminding them that all new construction inside existing settlements there requires his approval.
"In a letter addressed to the Israeli administration in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), Mr Barak reminded it that all new construction projects in the region must first obtain his green light," Defence Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror told AFP.
"Unfortunately in the past this rule was not always respected," he said, adding that the letter does not apply to construction already begun.
In late December Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered various ministries to seek his approval for all future construction projects in the West Bank.
His announcement came as Israel struggled to calm tensions with the Palestinians over the settlements issue ahead of last week's visit by US President George W. Bush aimed at bolstering the recently revived peace talks.
But neither Barak's letter nor Olmert's order applies to projects in east Jerusalem, which Israel considers part of its "undivided, eternal" capital, a claim not recognised by any other country.
Palestinians have demanded east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state and have said Israeli construction there could endanger the peace talks.
Bush hopes to shepherd the creation of a Palestinian state by 2009, but settlement expansion has been a key source of discord since Israel and the Palestinians resumed their peace talks under US stewardship in November.
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