The Israeli government on Wednesday rejected international criticism of its decision to build 1,100 new Jewish housing units in east Jerusalem, claiming the plans do not hinder peace efforts with the Palestinians.
Israel announced Tuesday that it had given the green light for the new construction in the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo in southeast Jerusalem. The Palestinians condemned the plan, and the U.S., European Union and United Nations all swiftly expressed their disappointment over the settlements, which raised already heightened tensions after last week's Palestinian move to seek U.N. membership.
"In every peace plan that has been put on the table over the last 18 years, Gilo remains an integral part of Jewish Jerusalem," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "There is no contradiction between this planning decision and the government's desire to move forward in peace toward two states for two peoples."
"Gilo is not a settlement, nor is it an outpost, Gilo is a neighborhood in the very heart of Jerusalem, only about a 5 minute drive from the very center of town."
The Palestinians have demanded that Israel halt all settlement construction in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their future capital, and the adjacent West Bank _ territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war _ as a condition for resuming peace talks.
Since capturing east Jerusalem, Israel has annexed the area and ringed it with about 10 Jewish enclaves that are meant to solidify its control. Gilo, which is close to the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, is among the largest, with about 50,000 residents. Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem has not been internationally recognized.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said Tuesday after the Israeli housing announcement that the decision amounted to "1,100 no's to the resumption of peace talks."
With peace negotiations stalled for the past three years, the Palestinians last week asked the U.N. Security Council to recognize an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip.
The U.S. has vowed to veto the Palestinian request in the Security Council. Both Israel and the U.S. say a Palestinian state can be established only through negotiations.
The fate of east Jerusalem is the most explosive issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The sector is home to Jerusalem's Old City, which houses sensitive Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites.
Netanyahu says he will never relinquish east Jerusalem, which Israel considers an integral part of its capital. The Palestinian leadership has vowed it will not accept a state without key parts of east Jerusalem as its capital.
In all, about 200,000 Jews live in east Jerusalem areas that Israel calls neighborhoods and the Palestinians call settlements. Squeezed between them are Arab neighborhoods that are home to some 250,000 Palestinians.
Also Wednesday, Israeli authorities said that Palestinian assailants are to blame for a car crash that killed an Israeli father and his infant son in the West Bank last week on the eve of the Palestinian bid for recognition at the United Nations.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the investigation found that the Israeli man lost control of his car after he was hit in the head by a stone. Palestinian youths regularly throw stones at Israeli cars in the West Bank.
The crash was initially thought to have been an accident.