Jerusalem pushed forward Sunday with plans to construct 1,500 apartments in east Jerusalem in a move that could undermine recently renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
City spokeswoman Brachie Sprung said city officials had approved plans to lay down infrastructure for the project. She called the move a "standard and bureaucratic process" and said final government approval was still required. Actual construction is still years away, she said.
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Still, the move comes just after Israelis and Palestinians resumed talks after a five-year stalemate. Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem is one of the thornier issues separating the two sides.
The city is pushing development in the neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, a project that has also raised tensions with the US Israel first announced the plans in 2010 during US Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel, sparking a diplomatic rift with Washington that took months to mend.
Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi accused Israel of playing a "dangerous game" by moving ahead with the plans.
"It seems they're pushing ahead with infrastructure as though this is not a basic part of settlement activity!" she wrote in an email.
The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment.
New settlement ot new neighborhood?
According to State procedures, new settlements can be constructed only after granted government approval. A new West bank neighborhood, Leshem, currently under construction, is theoretically a part of an existing settlement – Alei Zahav – but is marketed as a separate community, with its own board, separately issued tenders, and administrative personnel.
"We are inaugurating a new community today," Housing Minister Uri Ariel said at the inauguration of the new residential complex Leshem. Formally, it's part of an existing settlement, but will function as a separate community for all intents and purposes, and we shouldn’t be afraid to say it."
Last week, the first families moved into their houses in the new neighborhood.
"There is no way, during any negotiations, that we will not build in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, the Jordan Valley and all the land of Israel. Today, we are inaugurating a new community."
Deputy Transport Minister Tzipi Hotovely added: "It doesn’t matter if this is a settlement or a neighborhood, as long as we build more houses. It is at this time of negotiating that it is most important that more neighborhoods or settlements be built and that the Palestinians are sent a message that Israeli settlement is here to stay."
Gershon Mesika, head of the Shomron Regional Council, said in the inauguration ceremony: "I'm telling John Kerry… you can talk and do whatever you want. We will stay here and build on all the hills around."
Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Office MK Ofir Akunis who also attended the ceremony said: "There is a negotiation with the Palestinians, but that doesn’t stop anyone from building a home in the land of Israel. Here we say that a Palestinian state will not be formed. Who needs another Arab country in this region?"
Itamar Fleishman contributed to this report
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