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Israel approves 1,100 new homes in east Jerusalem

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel granted the go-ahead on Tuesday for construction of 1,100 new Jewish housing units in east Jerusalem, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ruled out any freeze in settlement construction, raising already heightened tensions after last week’s Palestinian move to seek U.N. membership.

Israel’s Interior Ministry said the homes would be built in Gilo, a sprawling Jewish enclave in southeast Jerusalem. It said construction could begin after a mandatory 60-day period for public comment, a process that spokesman Roi Lachmanovich called a formality.

The announcement drew swift condemnation from the Palestinians, who claim east Jerusalem as their future capital. The United States, European Union and United Nations all expressed disappointment with Israel’s decision.

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Israeli announcement was counterproductive to efforts to relaunch Mideast peace talks. She said both Israel and the Palestinians should avoid provocative actions, and international mediators will remain focused on guiding the two sides back to direct negotiations.

Richard Miron, a spokesman for U.N. Mideast envoy Robert Serry, said the announcement “sends the wrong signal at this sensitive time.”

The Palestinians have demanded Israel halt all settlement construction in east Jerusalem and the adjacent West Bank — territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — as a condition for resuming peace talks.

Since capturing east Jerusalem, Israel has annexed the area and ringed it with about 10 Jewish enclaves that are meant to solidify its control. Gilo, which is close to the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, is among the largest, with about 50,000 residents. Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem has not been internationally recognized.

Meir Margalit, a Jerusalem city council member who is critical of east Jerusalem construction, said city officials had given initial approval to the Gilo project more than a year ago.

Margalit said he didn’t expect the project to be “an obstacle of peace” since it is in an existing Jewish area that is widely expected to remain part of Israel in any peace deal. But he said Interior Minister Eli Yishai, leader of the hawkish Shas Party, appeared to have timed the approval as a response to the Palestinian statehood gambit. Yishai declined an interview request.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the Israeli decision amounted to “1,100 no’s to the resumption of peace talks.”

He urged the United States, Israel’s closest and most important ally, to change its position and support the Palestinians in their quest for U.N. membership. The United States has repeatedly called on Israel to cease settlement construction on land that could constitute a Palestinian state, but says the U.N. is not the proper place to resolve the conflict.

With peace talks stalled for the past three years, the Palestinians last week asked the U.N. Security Council to recognize an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. Although the move won’t change the situation on the ground, the Palestinians believe international support will boost their position in future peace negotiations.

The U.S. has vowed to veto the Palestinian request in the Security Council. Both Israel and the U.S. say a Palestinian state can be established only through negotiations.

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