Israel expedited Wednesday plans for more than 550 new settler homes in east Jerusalem, in a move exacerbating tensions between Israel and the Palestinians as they hold US-backed peace talks.
The city council said it had granted private contractors permits to build in three settlement neighbourhoods of annexed east Jerusalem -- 386 units in Har Homa, 136 in Neve Yaakov and 36 in Pisgat Zeev.
Issuing permits is one of the last stages before construction begins, with building likely to start in the coming weeks, the Israeli Peace Now settlement watchdog said.
"We are talking about building permits, which is really the final stage," Peace Now spokesman Lior Amihai told AFP.
"It's a shameful decision at a shameful time. A government that wants a two-state solution would not issue those amount of permits for east Jerusalem neighbourhoods."
But the municipality said the plans "were approved years ago" and noted that, at the same meeting, the local council had also backed plans for construction in Arab neighbourhoods of east Jerusalem.
"There has been no change in the policy of the city council over the past forty years and we are continuing to build in all neighbourhoods of the city according to a plan for Jews and Arabs alike," the statement said.
Israel captured east Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognised by the international community.
It considers all of Jerusalem its "eternal, undivided" capital and does not see construction in the eastern sector as settlement building.
Israel and the Palestinians resumed direct negotiations at the end of July with the aim of reaching an agreement within nine months.
But the US-led talks have been overshadowed by Israel's refusal to rein in construction plans on land the Palestinians want for a future state.
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The future status of annexed Arab east Jerusalem, which Israel views as part of its "eternal, undivided" capital and the Palestinians have demanded as the capital of their future state, is one of the thorniest issues in the decades-old conflict.
Israel 'engaging in deliberate provocation': Ashrawi
“Israel is engaging in the deliberate provocation of the Palestinians to drive them to leave the negotiations in protest of Israeli violations, and therefore should be blamed for the destruction of the peace process," senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi said in a statement.
According to Peace Now, since the talks began on July 29, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advanced plans for 7,302 new homes, including 4,880 in the West Bank and 2,422 in east Jerusalem.
In the same period, tenders were issued for 4,460 new homes -- 2,372 in the West Bank and 2,088 in east Jerusalem.
Figures for all of 2013 show that 2,433 new east Jerusalem homes were pushed through various stages of the lengthy planning process -- indicating that almost all of them were advanced after the talks started.
The Palestinians, along with the international community, consider settlement construction in east Jerusalem as well as in the West Bank a violation of international law.
Ashrawi also condemned the recent demolition of four Palestinian homes in two east Jerusalem neighbourhoods, which left 20 people homeless.
According to figures compiled by the UN humanitarian agency OCHA, Israel demolished at least 350 Palestinian homes and other structures in the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the first six months of talks, leaving 562 people homeless.
Of that number, 292 structures were in the West Bank and 58 were in east Jerusalem.
Israeli rights watchdog B'Tselem said Wednesday that, during 2013, Israel razed 124 homes just in the Jordan Valley area of the West Bank, where Israel insists it be allowed to maintain a long-term military presence in a future Palestinian state.