Pressure grows against Israeli settler homes

The EU and the United States have condemned Israel`s project for extra 1,100 homes in an east Jerusalem settlement.

Jerusalem: International pressure was mounting on Israel on Thursday over its plans for another 1,100 homes in an east Jerusalem settlement.

The Palestinian leadership has said the move effectively rebuffs a proposal from the Middle East Quartet for fresh peace talks, though senior Israeli politicians have given the Quartet`s plan a cautious welcome.

But on Wednesday, after the European Union and the United States condemned Israel`s project for extra 1,100 homes in an east Jerusalem settlement, China, Egypt, Russia and other major powers also voiced their opposition.

"China deeply regrets and opposes Israel`s approval of plans for expansion of Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing.

"China urges Israel to act prudently."

Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr also denounced the plans in a statement issued from Washington.

"Such an Israeli step reflects the country`s intention to continue with its provocative policy and defiance of the international consensus regarding the illegitimacy of settlement activities," he said.

"Egypt is deeply concerned over the accelerated settlement activities recently, particularly over the past couple of months," he said, referring to approvals for the construction of more than 6,000 settlement units.

"Israel should shoulder full responsibility for the repercussions of such provocative policies in light of the latest developments in the region," he added.

Russia too called on Israel to reconsider.

"We are particularly concerned that decisions on such a sensitive matter should be taken at an extremely important time for the future of the peace process," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

"We are counting (on Israel) so that the construction projects in east Jerusalem are reviewed."

Britain, France and Italy also condemned the move.

But Israel on Wednesday rejected the objections, insisting the Gilo neighbourhood, in annexed Jerusalem, was "not a settlement”.

"Gilo is not a settlement, nor is it an outpost," Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

"Gilo is a neighbourhood in the very heart of Jerusalem some five minutes from the centre of the city," he added.

"There is no contradiction between this decision, which is only a planning decision, and the government`s pursuit of peace through the principle of two states for two peoples.”

Palestinian leaders have nevertheless insisted it marks a snub to moves by the Middle East Quartet -- the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia -- to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

"With this, Israel is responding to the Quartet`s statement with 1,100 `Nos’," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said on Tuesday, shortly after the approval was made public.

It was Israel`s refusal to freeze building that prompted the Palestinian decision to seek UN membership in a bid to gain broader international support for a two-state solution.

That proposal is currently before the UN Security Council.

Despite the row over the latest building plans however, some senior Israeli politicians responded positively to the Quartet`s proposals for talks.

"Our answer must obviously be positive," Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom told Army radio after a five-hour meeting of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu`s inner circle, the forum of eight.

Netanyahu has already said he favours the proposal, which calls for the immediate resumption of direct talks "without preconditions”.

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians ran aground last autumn in a dispute over Jewish settlement building on land the Palestinians want for their future state.

The Palestinians insist they will not return to peace talks without a freeze on settlement activity or reference to the 1967 lines as the basis for talks, and have yet to respond officially to the Quartet`s proposal.

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas met on Wednesday with members of the central committee of his Fatah movement to discuss the Quartet`s proposal and the UN move.

He will meet the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation over the same issues on Thursday.

Bureau Report

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