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Peace hopes fade as Israel plans 381 more settler homes

Israel moved ahead Tuesday with plans for another 381 homes for West Bank settlers, prompting Palestinian charges it was more interested in building settlements than building peace.

JERUSALEM: Israel moved ahead Tuesday with plans for another 381 homes for West Bank settlers, prompting Palestinian charges it was more interested in building settlements than building peace.

It was the third such announcement in just over two weeks and raised to 2,530 the number of new settler homes announced since the start of the year.

The new construction will be in Givat Zeev, a settlement immediately south of the West Bank city of Ramallah, Peace Now spokesman Lior Amihai told AFP.

"The Israeli Civil Administration, which falls under the defence ministry, has published plans for the construction of 381 extra units in Givat Zeev," he said.

The move comes just three weeks after Israel's release on December 31 of 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners, in accordance with commitments under US-led peace talks.

"This is the third time since the last phase of Palestinian prisoner releases that the government has approved plans for new houses," Amihai told AFP.

The announcement showed that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is "not serious about the two-state solution and that its actions are contradictory with the negotiations," Amihai charged.

On January 6, Israel approved plans for 272 new homes in various West Bank settlements. Four days later, it unveiled plans for more than 1,877 new units, some in annexed Arab east Jerusalem.

Last July, Israel and the Palestinians embarked on nine months of direct negotiations at the urging of US Secretary of State John Kerry.

But over the past six months, Israel has not slowed its construction on land the Palestinians want for a future state, raising questions over its commitment to the talks.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat said the message was clear.

"Netanyahu's government does not want peace," he told AFP.

"No chance" of Palestinians extending talks

With very little progress visible and the April deadline for a framework agreement looming, Erakat said there was no chance the Palestinians would contemplate any extension of the talks.

"We've not been presented with a (plan for) extending negotiations, but we will not extend them for even an additional day after the nine-month period we agreed on," he said.

"There are still three months left, which Israel can use to move with us towards a peace agreement, but its actions confirm that it's not interested in this. It's destroying everything that might help a comprehensive peace agreement."

Last week, four key European states summoned Israeli ambassadors over the January 10 settlement announcement, drawing the ire of Netanyahu, who denounced the move as lacking "balance and fairness."

Netanyahu has also denied that Israel is breaching any prior commitment to the peace talks in its persistent settlement expansion.

"We are keeping in line exactly with the understandings we undertook at the beginning of the talks," he said in an address to the foreign press on January 16.

"Israel undertook no restraints on construction."

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas praised the EU's condemnation of settlement building, at a news conference with Romanian President Traian Basescu in Ramallah.

The EU's "statements and decisions confirm the importance of implementing international resolutions (against settlement building) and of considering settlement building to be illegal," Abbas said.

Israeli construction on land the Palestinians want for a future state is one of the thorniest issues of the peace process, and brought down the last attempt at direct talks in 2010.

The international community considers all Jewish settlements built on land Israel seized in the Six-Day War of 1967 to be illegal.

Peace Now said in a separate report Tuesday that Jerusalem's municipality had planned a Jewish visitors' centre on an archaeological site in Silwan, a densely-populated east Jerusalem neighbourhood.

"This plan is another attempt to politicise an archaeological site in a controversial location in east Jerusalem," it said.

"Should these plans advance to construction, they will greatly alter the area and will likely fuel greater conflict in the area."

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