Israel to build 700 apartments in east Jerusalem

Israel said today that it planned to build nearly 700 new apartments in east Jerusalem, drawing tough criticism from both the Palestinians and the US, which denounced it as an obstacle to peacemaking.

The dispute over east Jerusalem is the most intractable – and explosive – in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state and consider Jewish neighbourhoods there to be settlements. Israel claims all of the city as its eternal capital.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a slowdown in West Bank settlement construction several weeks ago in hopes of bringing the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. But the order did not include construction in east Jerusalem, home to sensitive Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites.

“We make a distinction between the West Bank and Jerusalem. Jerusalem is our capital and remains such,” said government spokesman Mark Regev.

The housing ministry said it had approved a total of 692 new apartments in three existing Jewish neighbourhoods already inhabited by tens of thousands of people.

Israel does not consider its east Jerusalem neighbourhoods to be settlements. It captured the city’s eastern sector in the 1967 Mideast war and immediately annexed the area. The international community does not recognise the annexation.

“We condemn this Israeli policy of continuing settlement activities, and we hope this will be an eye opener for the US administration and other members” of the international community, said Palestinian official Saeb Erekat.

The Palestinians have refused to reopen peace talks, which broke down a year ago, until Netanyahu halts all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. For months, the US has been trying to bring the sides together.

Netanyahu announced the settlement slowdown last month in a bid to rekindle peace talks with the Palestinians. But the Palestinians have rebuffed that overture because the order does not affect east Jerusalem and or block construction that is already under way on 3,000 settlement apartments.

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