Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo, from aljazeera.net) announced on Tuesday that a plan to build 2,000 new housing units for Israelis in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem would be accelerated.
In a statement the Israeli PM said that the new construction would include settlements that he believed would be part of Israel in a future peace accord.
At the same time Israel announced that it would temporarily freeze transfers of Palestinian tax revenues which they collect on behalf of the Palestinians and amount to around half of the Palestinian Authority’s domestic revenue base.
Both measures, announced a day after Palestine was granted full membership of Unesco, brought criticism from several countries.
An Israeli foreign ministry spokesman said on Tuesday that it was “a response to unilateral measures aimed at confronting Israel at the UN and elsewhere on the international scene”.
On Wednesday Mr Netanyahu said : “We are building in Jerusalem because it is our right and our duty to this generation and future generations, not as punishment but as the basic right of our people to build in its eternal city.”
“Jerusalem will never return to the state it was in on the eve of the (1967) Six-Day War, that I promise you.”
According to Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, the move will speed up the destruction of the peace process.
Former Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat said Israel’s announcement was “politically motivated”.
He told Al Jazeera : “The land they are going to build settlements on is supposed to be the land of the Palestinian state.”
“The money they will withhold is Palestinian money. So this is a policy of intimidation and blackmail and we’ll not budge … we’ll continue pursuing our rights.”
He added: “The mere fact that Israel defies the international community, by having more settlements instead of cessation of settlement activities and withholding Palestinian money, which is theft in my opinion, just reflects the nature of the Israeli government attempts to continue undermining the two-state solution. What harm does it bring to Israel when Palestinians join UNESCO?”
‘Provocative and unhelpful’
The European Union said it was “deeply concerned” by the announcement, while the UK, France and Germany said it would hinder efforts for peace.
The United States was “deeply disappointed”, said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
“Unilateral actions work against efforts to resume direct negotiations, and they do not advance the goal of a reasonable and necessary agreement between the two parties,” Mr Carney said.
“That is the only way to achieve the two-state solution that both sides have as their goal.”
“Israeli settlement activity is illegal under international law including in East Jerusalem and an obstacle to peace. We have stated this many times before,” said EU policy chief Catherine Ashton.
She also urged Israel to reverse the decision and asked both sides to get back to the negotiating table.
“This settlement building programme is illegal under international law and is the latest in a series of provocative and unhelpful settlement announcements,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement in which he also criticised the withholding of Palestinian tax revenues.
French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said the proposed settlement building “is illegal in international law and is a threat to the two-state solution”.
Steffen Seibert, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, said building settlements in occupied areas “hinders the goal we all must have of a two-state solution and is unjustifiable”.
“The secretary general calls on the government of Israel to freeze all settlement activity and to continue to transfer VAT and customs revenues that belong to the Palestinian Authority and are essential to enable it to function, in line with Israel’s obligations,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spokesman Martin Nesirky.
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been on hold for more than a year over the issue of Israeli settlement building.
Since 1967, Israel has settled nearly 500,000 Jews in occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Settlements are considered illegal under international law, but Israel disputes this.