Israel approves 380 new East Jerusalem settler homes

Go-ahead for construction in Ramot and Har Homa areas of what Palestinians consider the capital of their future state.

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JERUSALEM // Israeli authorities on Wednesday approved the construction of nearly new settler homes in two areas of annexed East Jerusalem.

“The municipal commission has given construction permits for 307 homes in Ramot and 73 in Har Homa,” said Yosef Pepe Alalu, a Jerusalem city councillor with the opposition Meretz party.

He said local officials were taking advantage of attention focusing on Israeli elections due in March to expand settlements.

“This kind of decision distances us from any chance of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians,” he said.

Despite repeated warnings from Washington that it is fuelling tensions, Israel has approved a series of plans for new settler homes in East Jerusalem in recent months.

Palestinians want the city’s predominantly Arab eastern sector as capital of a Palestinian state and vehemently oppose any Israeli attempt to expand construction there.

Israel seized East Jerusalem during the 1967 War and later annexed it in a move never recognised by the international community.

It refers to the entire city as its “united, undivided capital”, and does not view construction there as settlement activity.

Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have boiled over in recent months with frequent clashes between security forces and stone-throwing protesters, and a series of deadly “lone wolf” attacks on Israeli civilians.

The Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman insisted last month that Israel would never consider the building of Jewish settlements in Jerusalem as “settlement activity”.

Official figures show that the population of Israeli settlers in the West Bank as a whole has grown at more than twice the rate of the general population under prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

From the beginning of 2009 – Mr Netanyahu returned to office in March that year – until the beginning of 2014, the Jewish settler population in the West Bank grew 23 per cent, to 355,993 people. In comparison, the overall Israeli population has grown 9.6 per cent to just over 8 million in that time.

With early elections looming in March, Mr Netanyahu’s government is pumping millions of dollars into Jewish settlements in the West Bank for public buildings and roads ahead, an official said this week. His opponents view this as a political ploy aimed at gaining favour with hardline voters.

The official said the spending spree had been held up by the former finance Minister Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party, who was fired early this month in a move that helped trigger the early election.

Mr Lapid, who has criticised some settlement spending as a waste of money, this week asked Israel’s attorney general to stop the transfer of funds, saying the move was politically motivated. Mr Lapid said the money should go toward Israel’s struggling middle class rather than for infrastructure in isolated West Bank areas that would likely be dismantled if Israel withdraws from the territory in a future peace deal.

Yesh Atid legislator Dov Lipman, a member of the Israeli parliament’s finance committee, said its chairman, a member of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, rushed through tens of millions of dollars in settlement projects at a stormy meeting this month after Mr Lapid was fired. “We couldn’t stop it. There was no way to stop it,” he told the Times of Israel website.

He said the budget items had been placed on the agenda by Mr Netanyahu, who has held the finance portfolio since sacking Mr Lapid.

* Agence France-Presse with additional