Palestinian children look at bungalows built by Israeli settlers, near the West Bank city of Birzeit, on December 3, 2013
Palestinian children look at bungalows built by Israeli settlers, near the West Bank city of Birzeit, on December 3, 2013 © Abbas Momani - AFP/File
Palestinian children look at bungalows built by Israeli settlers, near the West Bank city of Birzeit, on December 3, 2013
AFP
Last updated: December 26, 2013

Israel says to free Palestinians and build more settlements

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Israel will announce plans for new settlement construction next week, coinciding with the release of a third batch of Palestinian prisoners as part of peace talks, an official said Thursday.

Palestinians have warned repeatedly that settlement building destroys the fragile US-brokered peace talks process that resumed in July after a three-year hiatus.

"The Israeli government will announce tenders for new construction in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem which will coincide with the release of a third group of Palestinian prisoners," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The comments come days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to push ahead with settlement construction despite calls for restraint by US Secretary of State John Kerry and the European Union.

"We will not stop, even for a moment, building our country and becoming stronger, and developing... the settlement enterprise," Netanyahu told members of his rightwing Likud party last week.

Kerry, who has been fighting to keep the peace talks going, urged Netanyahu earlier this month "to exercise maximum restraint in announcing new construction", the Haaretz daily has reported.

Israel had been expected to release another 26 Palestinian prisoners on Sunday, in line with commitments to the US-backed peace process which also called on both sides to negotiate for nine months.

But according to a Channel 2 television report on Thursday evening, the procedures essential to the release -- approving the names and allowing 48 hours for court petitions -- have not taken place yet.

It concluded that the release would not take place before Tuesday night.

Israel agreed to free 104 Palestinian prisoners during the peace talks, and has already released 52 in two separate batches.

After the third group is released, the remaining inmates are due to walk free in March 2014.

The previous releases in August and October were accompanied by Israeli announcements of fresh construction on land the Palestinians want for a future state, provoking international condemnation and Palestinian officials to say Israeli settlement plans are destroying the peace process.

Israeli daily Maariv cited an unidentified top official as saying Netanyahu had initially agreed to US and EU appeals to delay an announcement of new construction, but changed his mind under pressure from his coalition partners in order not to project a "signal of weakness".

Cross-border violence between Israel and the Gaza strip has increased, meanwhile.

Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Thursday Israel would not accept the "trickle of terror from the Gaza Strip".

"If there is no quiet in Israel, there won't be quiet in Gaza," he said.

Two rockets fired from Gaza hit southern Israel Thursday without causing injuries or damage, the military said.

Netanyahu said the coastal enclave's Palestinian Islamist rulers Hamas were responsible for "all the attacks launched on us.

"We will strike at those who attack us, and at those who support them," he said.

Later on Thursday, the Israeli army carried out attacks "in response" to the Gaza projectiles, targeting "terror infrastructure in the Gaza Strip," it said in a statement.

"A weapons-manufacturing facility was targeted in the central Gaza Strip, and a weapons storage facility was targeted in the northern Gaza Strip. Direct hits were confirmed," it said.

Palestinian eyewitnesses said one person was wounded in each attack.

On Tuesday, cross-border tensions escalated when the Israeli military retaliated to the fatal shooting by launching tank and air strikes on the Gaza Strip that killed a toddler and wounded at least six Palestinians.

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