Israeli plan to build 700 new settler homes in West Bank draws US rebuke
JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel announced it would seek tender offers to build 700 new homes for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, drawing a rapid rebuke from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The announcement, which came shortly after the end of Rice's first visit to Israel and the West Bank as Washington's top diplomat, incited fury from the Palestinians who accused Israel of trying to change the face of Jerusalem.
"At the end of the year we are going to put to tender contracts to build 300 homes in the settlement of Maale Adumim and 400 homes in Beitar Eilit," a spokesman for Israel's housing ministry told AFP.
Housing "Minister Yitzhak Herzog has approved the construction because there is a consensus in Israel to hold on to these two settlements in the future," said spokesman Kobi Bleich.
Both sprawling settlements are located around annexed east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians hope to make the capital of their promised state. Israel considers the whole of Jerusalem the undivided capital of the Jewish state.
Arriving in Jordan on the third leg of her Middle East swing, Rice betrayed her irritation over the settlements as well as the West Bank security barrier which Israel is erecting to the anger of the Palestinians.
"I discussed both the issue of the settlements and the wall with the prime minister, with the foreign minister and with anybody else who would listen," she told a news conference.
"The fact is that the United States has a very clear policy on this and we don't expect to see any activity from the Israelis that try and prejudge a final status agreement."
A spokeswoman for Herzog, who belongs to the centre-left Labour party that joined the government primarily to shore up this summer's Gaza pullout, quickly sought to minimise any direct responsibility for the prospective expansions.
"The construction plans date back a long time, well before the minister took office, and in the six months he has been on the job, he has not signed a single tender," Pina Ben Ami told AFP.
But the Palestinian cabinet minister responsible for Jerusalem accused Israel of brazenly ignoring US criticism over settlement expansion to raze Palestinian homes in the city.
"These new construction plans come in defiance of statements from President (George W.) Bush and Condoleezza Rice," Hind Khuri told AFP.
She said the projects worked for the "systematic destruction of Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem," on the pretext of being built without permit.
"The aim is to create new fait accomplis to change the face of Jerusalem," she charged.
The United States maintains that final negotiations on a Palestinian state, as provided in the roadmap, would have to take into account "certain realities" since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which Rice says must be "mutually agreed".
A residential suburb of occupied eastJerusalem, Maale Adumim is the most populous Jewish settlement in the West Bank with 28,000 settlers.
The 25,000-strong Beitar Eilit is a Jewish Orthodox community a stone's throw from the Israeli border and part of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc.
It emerged earlier this year that Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz had approved the construction of more than 3,500 new homes in Maale Adumim.
Israeli authorities are preparing to revive plans to link Maale Adumim to Jewish settlements in Arab east Jerusalem as the government presses ahead with plans to evacuate all Israeli settlers and troops from Gaza by October.
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