JERUSALEM – Israel gave the final go-ahead Thursday to build nearly 1,500 homes in Jewish settlements, saying the construction was a response to the formation of the Palestinian unity government backed by the Islamic militant group Hamas.
The move triggered international criticism and deepened a rift between Israel and its Western allies. With Israel outraged at the world’s embrace of the unity government, Israel’s housing minister said the new construction was “just the beginning.”
Israel has been sparring with its allies in Washington and Europe since Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas swore in the unity government Monday.
Israel has asked the world to shun the new government because it is backed by Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks in the past two decades. The European Union and the United States, along with Israel, consider Hamas a terrorist group.
Abbas says Hamas plays no formal role in the government. His new Cabinet consists of technocrats who have accepted international demands to renounce violence and accept Israel’s right to exist.
Israeli officials say any government that is backed by Hamas is unacceptable as long as the group remains sworn to Israel’s destruction. Both the U.S. and EU have said they will give the new government a chance – and will continue funneling hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Abbas.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week he was “deeply troubled” by the U.S. stance, putting him at odds with his closest and most important ally.
The international community considers Israeli settlement construction illegal or illegitimate, and continued construction was a recurring sticking point in the latest round of U.S.-backed peace talks.
Netanyahu’s housing minister, Uri Ariel, said Thursday that tenders had been issued to build about 900 homes in the West Bank and about 560 more in east Jerusalem, territories captured in the 1967 Mideast war and which the Palestinians seek as parts of a future state.
More than 560,000 Israelis live in territories captured in the 1967 war, and the Palestinians say that continued growth of settlements on the lands they claim makes it increasingly difficult for them to achieve independence.
Chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat said Thursday’s settlement announcement is “a clear sign that Israel is moving toward a major escalation.” He said the Palestinians were formulating a response to the move.