Home starts in Jewish settlements rose by a "drastic" 70 percent in the first half of 2013, jeopardising peace talks, an Israeli NGO and a Palestinian official said Thursday.
Anti-settlement group Peace Now said in a statement that between January and June construction started on 1,708 new homes in the occupied West Bank, including annexed east Jerusalem, compared with 995 in the first half of 2012.
Billing the figures as a "drastic rise," Peace Now said 86 percent of the new construction was carried out in areas where tenders were not required, meaning that building activity did not technically flout the quiet freeze on tenders Israel reportedly agreed to this year as Washington pushed for a resumption of direct peace talks.
Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP the settlement building is "destroying the peace process" relaunched with US prodding in July, and that Israel is "fully responsible for this situation and its outcome."
Peace Now's Hagit Ofran concurred.
"Fortunately the Palestinians did not leave the talks because of the continued construction in settlements, but there is a chance that if this policy continues, then it will be very, very hard to hold on to the talks," she said.
In May, press reports said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had ordered a freeze on tenders for new settler homes.
Although it was never officially confirmed, statistics released at the time by Peace Now showed there had been no new tenders issued since the start of the year.
But the watchdog said the figures now showed the tender freeze was "not a general construction freeze but only of a small part of the construction in settlements."
US-sponsored direct peace talks resumed in late July after a hiatus of nearly three years, although both sides have kept a tight lid on the substance under discussion at the request of Washington.
Israeli daily Maariv reported on Thursday that the negotiations almost collapsed in September due to conflicting positions on future borders, particularly where the eastern West Bank adjoins Jordan.
Israel has long stated that it seeks to retain a long-term military presence along the Jordan Valley, which the Palestinians vigorously oppose.
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"We don't want an Iranian satellite in the West Bank as has already happened along our borders" Netanyahu said Wednesday in a reference to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Maariv said that in an attempt to resolve the impasse, Israeli negotiators proposed leasing the valley "for decades" from the Palestinians.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said Thursday that such an arrangement was unacceptable.
"We shall not accept any Israeli military presence, not even that of a single soldier, on the soil of the Palestinian state," he told AFP.
Israel building 'deep in the West Bank'
Peace Now said that despite the talk of a settlement freeze, expansion was continuing by stealth.
"The tendency of Netanyahu's government has been to build more in isolated settlements deep in the West Bank where tenders are not needed, compared with the previous government which built more in settlements closer to the Green Line," Ofran said.
Settlement building in the territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War is considered illegal under international law, and the issue remains one of the most divisive in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Netanyahu's adviser on settlement issues is pushing forward a plan which would remove the need to invite bids for urban settlements, in an attempt to minimise the diplomatic pressure that results from a public tendering process, Haaretz daily reported Thursday.
In rural settlements, there is no requirement for competitive tenders, because the land is allocated through the World Zionist Organisation, which hands it to an NGO involved in settlement that then privately selects residents.
By contrast, in urban settlements, the Israel Lands Administration must publish invitations to tender for all plots, which often triggers diplomatic protests, the paper said.
The prime minister's office refused to comment on the Haaretz report.