The United Nations special envoy for Mideast peace, Robert Serry, has condemned Israel's renewed building in dozens of West Bank settlements, saying the construction is "illegal under international law" and "will only further undermine trust."
The Israeli advocacy group Peace Now said Thursday Jewish settlers have begun building more than 600 homes in dozens of West Bank settlements since Israel's partial construction moratorium expired last month. The group said foundations have been dug for 300 units and work is under way for the rest, many of them in smaller settlements that would be most unlikely to remain as part of Israel in any future two-state deal with the Palestinians.
The anti-settlement group says the rate of construction is four times faster than before the 10-month settlement freeze was enacted in November 2009.
Hagit Ofran, who monitors settlements for Peace Now, said the rush appears to be driven by fear among settlers that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would renew the settlement freeze under U.S. pressure. She said Peace Now will release a full report next week.
Settler leaders confirmed the group's numbers and said they wished they had been able to build still more. A separate Associated Press count shows Israeli settlers have begun building about 550 West Bank homes since the moratorium expired on September 26.
Direct peace talks between Palestinian and Israeli officials are on hold because of disputes over settlement construction in territory Palestinians want for a future state, including land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Palestinian spokesman Ghassan Khatib says the pace of new settlement construction in the West Bank is "alarming." He calls it another indicator that Israel is "not serious about the peace process."
Earlier this month, Mr. Netanyahu offered to renew the settlement construction freeze if Palestinians recognized Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinians rejected the offer.
Meanwhile, a delegation of foreign dignitaries touring the Middle East met in East Jerusalem Thursday with Palestinians who are living in homes facing demolition. Members of The Elders group told residents they would communicate their concerns to Israeli authorities.
The Elders delegation includes former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who helped broker the 1979 Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt.
Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters.