Thursday, November 19, 2009

Israel shrugs off fury over settlement drive

Jason Koutsoukis, Jerusalem and Anne Davies, Washington
November 19, 2009 - 12:00AM

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has brushed aside international anger about the expansion of Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem by defining the new plans as ''standard procedure''.

On Tuesday the Jerusalem municipality approved the construction of another 900 housing units in Gilo, which is built on land annexed by Israel after the 1967 Six Day War and is regarded as an illegal settlement by the United Nations.

''The construction in Gilo has been going on for decades, and there is nothing new in the planning procedures,'' said a spokesman for Mr Netanyahu.

Gilo, south of the Jerusalem centre, has 40,000 Jewish residents and completes a ring of Jewish neighbourhoods through East Jerusalem that Palestinians argue prevents the eastern side of the city from becoming a future capital of a Palestinian state.

The new construction plans raised the ire of the US, Britain and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said: ''We find the Jerusalem planning committee decision to move forward the approval process for the expansion of Gilo, in Jerusalem, as dismaying.''

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement: ''At a time when we are working to relaunch negotiations, these actions make it more difficult for our efforts to succeed.''

The White House went further and reprimanded Israel about other activities related to housing.

''The US also objects to other Israeli practices in Jerusalem related to housing, including the continuing pattern of evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes,'' Mr Gibbs said.

''Our position is clear: the status of Jerusalem is a permanent status issue that must be resolved through negotiations between the parties.''

Diplomatic sources said that Israeli officials ignored a request on Monday by US President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell to halt the Gilo decision.

Mr Ban also issued a tersely worded statement deploring the Israeli Government's decision on the Gilo settlement, stressing that it was built on Palestinian territory occupied by Israel in the 1967 war.

''The Secretary-General reiterates his position that settlements are illegal, and calls on Israel to respect its commitments under the road map to cease all settlement activity, including natural growth,'' a statement issued by his office said, referring to the peace plan that foresees two states - Israel and Palestine - living side by side in peace and security.

Since Mr Obama was sworn into office in January, a key plank of his strategy to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians has been to demand that Israel cease all settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Israel has repeatedly refused to consider a construction freeze of any kind in East Jerusalem, offering instead to impose a temporary construction freeze in the West Bank during the resumption of future negotiations with the Palestinians.

Despite its ostensibly tough stance, the Obama Administration has sent mixed signals.

Last month US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Mr Netanyahu's offer as ''unprecedented''.

But in the face of a furious response from the Arab world, and the announcement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that he would quit politics, Mr Obama has renewed his insistence that Israel halt all settlement construction.

This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/world/israel-shrugs-off-fury-over-settlement-drive-20091118-imhm.html

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