Palestinian fury as Israel unveils plans for more settler homes

Israeli authorities Tuesday announced the approval of 942 new settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem, sparking Palestinian fury on the eve of the resumption of fragile peace talks with Israel.

The Jerusalem municipality said that while it had only now given final approval for the new homes in Gilo, an existing settlement in east Jerusalem, they had been a long time in the planning.

But senior PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo said the announcement, coupled with the weekend approval of around 1,200 homes to be built elsewhere in east Jerusalem and in the West Bank, threatened the "collapse" of talks.

"This settlement expansion is unprecedented," Abed Rabbo said. "It threatens to make talks fail even before they've started."

The last peace talks broke down in 2010 on the issue of settlement building.

The latest developments come as the Israelis are due to free 26 Palestinian long-term prisoners -- the first of a batch of 104 to be released under a deal agreed to get the talks going again.

US Secretary of State John Kerry during a visit to Colombia on Monday urged the Palestinians "not to react adversely" to the weekend Israeli settlement announcement.

Kerry, who took the lead in securing last month's resumption of peace talks after a three-year hiatus, stressed the need for the two sides to return to the negotiating table as planned on Wednesday in Jerusalem.

The city's deputy mayor Yosef Pepe Alalu told AFP the municipality had approved a construction plan for 942 homes in Gilo.

"This is a terrible decision which is a provocation against the Palestinians, the Americans and the whole world who oppose continued settlement building," the leftwing municipal councillor said.

A Tuesday municipality statement confirmed the homes' approval but said they had been planned for a long time.

"The authorisation (was) granted yesterday," the statement from Mayor Nir Barakat's office said.

But "the housing development in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Gilo was previously announced over two years ago."

Israel's housing ministry on Sunday announced tenders for the construction of 793 settlement housing units in annexed east Jerusalem and 394 elsewhere in the West Bank.

"Settlement expansion goes against the US administration's pledges and threatens to cause the negotiations' collapse," said Abed Rabbo.

Palestinian officials had already reacted angrily to Sunday's announcement.

"Israel is attempting to prevent negotiations from taking place on Wednesday," negotiator Mohammad Shtayyeh said at that time.

Kerry, speaking in Bogota on Monday, sought to neutralise the atmosphere, noting that the settlement plans were "to some degree expected," and calling for both sides to resolve their major issues.

"We have known that there was going to be a continuation of some building in certain places, and I think the Palestinians understand that," the chief US diplomat said in Bogota.

But he added: "I think one of the announcements or maybe one of them was outside of that level of expectation, and that's being discussed right now."

Kerry said he did not expect the latest developments to become a "speed bump," but he reiterated that the United States regards all settlements as illegal.

"Once you have security and borders solved, you have resolved the question of settlements. And so I urge all the parties not to react adversely or to provoke adversely, whichever party may do one or the other in any way," he said.

The EU warned on Monday that approval for the West Bank settlements threatened to torpedo the peace talks.

"Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law and threaten to make a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impossible," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton's spokesman Michael Mann said.

Israel was in parallel preparing to release 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners ahead of Wednesday's talks, but had not yet given the exact timing. The remaining 78 prisoners will be freed in batches depending on progress in talks.

A last-minute appeal against their release by families of victims was rejected Tuesday by the Supreme Court, which said prisoner releases were political decisions for the government alone to take, according to Israeli public radio.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat underlined the importance of the prisoner release for peace talks to continue.

"We hope to put into effect what we've agreed on... we hope for the release of 104 prisoners," he said.

"There is a clear understanding between us and the Americans and Israelis. Any change (in that) will mean the agreement is off the table."