The Interior Ministry's Planning and Construction Committee has approved the building of 277 new housing units in Ariel, defying international criticism of continued construction on land the Palestinians claim for a state.
The planned construction in Ariel – the core of the settlement bloc farthest inside the West Bank – is the third project on disputed lands to be advanced in the past week. Israel has recently moved ahead on plans to build more than 2,500 new apartments in disputed east Jerusalem, and Israeli officials say 2,700 more will be approved soon.
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"We think unilateral actions by both sides, Israeli or Palestinian, are not helpful to the process to try to get both parties back to the table," US Embassy spokesman Kurt Hoyer said.
In Washington, the State Department called the new Israeli building "deeply troubling."
"These kinds of actions are counterproductive to the resumption of direct negotiations" between the Israelis and Palestinians, said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Palestinian Authority Spokesperson Ghassan Khatib called the recent building announcements an "escalation" and called on the international community to pressure Israel harder.
"The policies of every single country in the world (are) that settlement expansion is illegal and an obstacle to peace," Khatib said. "Israel is not taking this seriously. I think these countries have to introduce elements of accountability to their relations with Israel."
The Prime Minister's Office refused to comment.
Palestinians oppose Israeli construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem – lands they want for the core of a future independent state – and have suspended talks with Israel as a result.
The latest construction approval could further complicate American attempts to persuade the Palestinians to give up their UN statehood bid in eptember and enter negotiations with Israel instead.
Some 100 of the housing units are designated for families evacuated from Gush Katif during the 2005 Gaza disengagement. The construction is set to be complete in approximately three years.
Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman welcomed the decision, saying it was the largest construction project approved by the government in recent years. "In the past seven years, no more than 50 apartments were built here," he said.
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