By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel is making plans to build nearly 24,000 more settler homes in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, an anti-settlement group said on Tuesday, questioning the government's commitment to peace talks with the Palestinians.
Peace Now, which monitors settlement activity on occupied land Palestinians seek for a state, said the Housing Ministry had issued tenders late last month for drawing up construction plans, but that no building work was imminent.
"With tenders for planning, what we are seeing is a very early stage that can open the door for construction not in the short term, but several years down the road," Peace Now said in a statement.
But it said the potential projects for 19,786 housing units in the West Bank and 4,000 in East Jerusalem were an important indicator of where the government stands on future building, even as it engages the Palestinians in land-for-peace talks.
Peace Now said one plan called for construction in a highly sensitive area sandwiched between Jerusalem and Ramallah, the Palestinian seat of government, and could impede any efforts to reach an agreement on the future of the holy city.
"The issuing of tenders for planning is unequivocal evidence that Netanyahu intends to prevent the real chances of a negotiated agreement and a two-state solution," Peace Now said.
It said the tenders included planning for 1,200 additional housing units for the E-1 area near Jerusalem, where under U.S. pressure Israel has suspended previous projects to build more than 3,000 settler homes.
Israeli political sources said Netanyahu, after learning of the new plans for E-1, swiftly ordered they also be frozen.
The tenders were published on a government website before a visit last week by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who encountered Palestinian anger over previously announced projects for the construction of 3,500 more settler homes.
There was no immediate Palestinian comment on the latest plans.
A Housing Ministry spokesman, confirming the new tenders had been issued, said only a small fraction of the blueprints that it commissions annually lead to actual construction.
"The tenders are a basis for building plans and they all still have to go through lengthy legal procedures before building starts," said the spokesman, Ariel Rosenberg.
Palestinians fear Israel's settlements in areas it captured in the 1967 Middle East war will deny them a viable state. Most countries consider the enclaves illegal under international law. The United States describes the settlements as illegitimate.
Israel cites historical and biblical links to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where more than 500,000 Israelis now live alongside 2.5 million Palestinians.
During his visit, Kerry appealed publicly to Israel to limit settlement building "as much as possible" to help the negotiations succeed. The talks resumed in July after a three-year break and have shown little sign of progress.
Netanyahu accused the Palestinians of creating "artificial crises" over the settlement issue and has said that most of Israel's building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is in areas it intends to keep in any future peace deal.
Peace Now said the latest tenders "will make it even more difficult for the Palestinians to remain at the negotiating table".
(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis)