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Israel plans new settlements while freeing Palestinian prisoners

Dec. 26, 2013 4:31 A.M. (Updated: Dec. 28, 2013 11:47 A.M.)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Israel will reveal plans to build 1,400 settler homes in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem to coincide with the weekend release of Palestinian prisoners, military radio said Friday.

A third batch of Palestinian prisoners is due to be released on Sunday as part of conditions that Israel agreed to when it committed to resume US-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians in July.

Palestinians have warned repeatedly that settlement building destroys the fragile peace process which US Secretary of State John Kerry struggled to revive after a three-year hiatus.

Military radio said 600 new housing units would be build in the existing settlement of Ramat Shlomo in east Jerusalem, a mostly Arab sector annexed by Israel, while the remainder would be constructed in West Bank settlements.

Israel has come in for repeated criticism from the United States and most of the international community for pressing ahead with a drive to build Jewish settlements on land Palestinians want for their future state.

Kerry and the European Union earlier this month urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to delay plans to announce new settlement construction.

Media reports quoted Kerry as telling Netanyahu "to exercise maximum restraint in announcing new construction."

But Netanyahu last week said nothing would stop his government from pushing ahead with the constructions.

"We will not stop, even for a moment, building our country and becoming stronger, and developing ... the settlement enterprise," Netanyahu told members of his rightwing Likud party last week.

A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Thursday the Israeli government will announce tenders for new homes in tandem with freeing the next batch of Palestinian prisoners.

"The Israeli government will announce tenders for new construction in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem which will coincide with the release of a third group of Palestinian prisoners," the official told AFP.

Israel agreed to free 104 Palestinian prisoners during the peace talks, and has already released 52 in two separate batches.

A third group is due to be released Sunday -- although Israeli media said they could in fact be freed on Tuesday night -- while the remaining inmates should walk free in March 2014.

Channel 2 television reported on Thursday evening that the procedures essential to the release -- approving the names and allowing 48 hours for court petitions -- have yet to take place.

More than 500,000 Israeli settlers live in settlements across the West Bank and East Jerusalem, in contravention of international law.

The internationally recognized Palestinian territories of which the West Bank and East Jerusalem form a part have been occupied by the Israeli military since 1967.

Ma'an staff contributed to this report.
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