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UN Chief Condemns Israeli Settlement Plans

The U.N. Secretary General has condemned Israel's announcement of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem and says it has cast a "negative atmosphere" ahead of a meeting of the Middle East Quartet in Moscow on Friday. Ban Ki-moon told reporters before departing for Russia, that he is deeply concerned over developments in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Mr. Ban strongly condemned Israel's decision to build new homes for Jews in East Jerusalem. "As I have said before, I say again, directly and without equivocation: settlements are illegal under international law," he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed international criticism, saying on Monday that his government would keep building in East Jerusalem, as it has for the past 42 years. Palestinian officials say the settlement project must stop before they will join U.S.-mediated indirect peace talks with Israel.

Mr. Ban also criticized Israel's on-going blockade of the Gaza Strip, saying it destroys hope of a better life and recovery from last year's conflict between Hamas and Israel's army. "As a policy it is counterproductive. It undercuts moderates and empowers extremists. It destroys legitimate commerce and encourages smuggling. It blocks the road to a peaceful future for both sides in this conflict," he said.

Mr. Ban leaves Tuesday night for Moscow, where he will meet with the other members of the so-called Middle East Quartet - the United States, the European Union, Russia, and Mr. Ban as the representative of the United Nations.

He said he hopes to see what the Quartet and international community can contribute to the restarting of peace talks and the implementation of the road map.

But new clashes Tuesday between rock throwing Palestinian protesters and the Israeli police in several parts of East Jerusalem did not appear to boost confidence ahead of the Quartet meeting.

The demonstrators were protesting Israel's consecration of a synagogue that is near to a site considered sacred by both Jews and Muslims. The secretary-general called for restraint and calm by all parties.

Following Friday's Quartet meeting, the U.N. chief will travel to Israel and the occupied territories, for what he said, he hopes will be a first-hand assessment of the situation.