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Israel Approves More Settlement Homes in East Jerusalem

A general view of Nof Zion residential area is seen Wednesday, Oct.25, 2017, in east Jerusalem. The Jerusalem municipality says that city officials have approved construction of 176 new homes in Nof Zion and that the new homes will more than double the size of the current settlement, making it the largest Jewish settlement in the heart of an Arab area of east Jerusalem.

Israel on Wednesday approved construction of nearly 200 new homes in a Jewish housing development of east Jerusalem, pushing ahead with a recent spike of settlement construction.

The decision by Jerusalem city officials followed last week's approval to move forward with roughly 3,000 new homes in the West Bank. A senior Cabinet minister meanwhile said government officials are set to advance a plan that would make a group of West Bank settlements part of greater Jerusalem.

The spate of settlement activity drew condemnation from the Palestinians, who said the Israeli actions threatened President Donald Trump's efforts to restart peace talks.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat's office said the city's planning committee had approved 176 new homes in Nof Zion, a Jewish housing development that abuts the Arab neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber.

Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed the territory in a step that was not recognized internationally. Today, it considers the entire city to be its eternal capital.

The Palestinians seek east Jerusalem, home to the city's sensitive holy sites, as the capital of their future state. The competing claims to east Jerusalem are at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and often boil over into violence.

Israel has ringed east Jerusalem with a number of Jewish neighborhoods to prevent the city from being divided.

Nof Zion is situated inside an Arab neighborhood. City officials say the new homes will more than double its size, making it the largest Jewish settlement built in the heart of an Arab area of east Jerusalem.

Most of the international community, along with the Palestinians, oppose all settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, considering them illegal obstacles to peace that gobble up land for a future Palestinian state. Israel says the fate of the settlements, home to more than 600,000 Israelis, should be decided through negotiations.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said Israel was trying to destroy the possibility of a two-state solution.

"Expansion of settlements is a challenge to President Trump and his envoys while they are working to relaunch the peace process," he said.

Trump's envoy, Jason Greenblatt, has been shuttling throughout the region in hopes of restarting peace talks, which last collapsed in 2014.

But in contrast to the Obama Administration, Trump has not explicitly endorsed a Palestinian state. He also has shown some tolerance for settlement construction, urging Israel to show restraint but saying a halt in settlement building is not necessary.

"President Trump has expressed concerns regarding settlements," a U.S. official said. "The administration has made clear that unrestrained settlement activity does not advance the prospect for peace. At the same time the administration recognizes that past demands for a settlement freeze have not helped advance peace talks." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Last week, Israeli authorities pushed forward plans to build an additional 3,000 settler homes in the West Bank. The plans were at various stages of development, but some 700 or so can be built immediately.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had promised settler leaders new funds for infrastructure projects in the West Bank. The official would not say how much money he had promised, but Channel 2 TV said it was over $200 million.

Meanwhile, Israel's Cabinet minister for transportation and intelligence, Yisrael Katz, announced that a ministerial committee on Sunday was set to vote on a proposal to expand the Jerusalem municipal area to include a number of nearby West Bank settlements.

"This Sunday I will be a partner to Jewish history," Katz said in a statement.

The plan aims to link a number of West Bank settlements to Jerusalem to solidify the city's Jewish majority. Roughly one-third of Jerusalem's residents are Palestinian.

Katz said the law is "the clear answer to all the elements in the world trying to undermine the Jewish people's link to Jerusalem and Jerusalem's belonging to the Jewish people."

The law stops short of annexing West Bank territory to Israel, and its practical implications are unclear. The bill says the communities joining Jerusalem will retain "municipal autonomy" and be considered "daughter municipalities" of Jerusalem, with the division of authorities to be determined later.

Still, it is likely to draw Palestinian accusations that Israel is creeping toward annexing occupied territory.

Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement watchdog group, said the proposed legislation would amount to "de facto annexation" and be a clear step toward full annexation.

"This is a reckless step of a government that seems to be determined to ruin the possibility for a two-state solution," the group said. "We cannot let this bill become law!"