Israel moving ahead with new settler housing

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel has given preliminary approval to build nearly 300 housing units in a West Bank settlement, a spokesman said Thursday, bringing a Palestinian rebuke and possibly complicating U.S. efforts to relaunch Mideast peace talks.

The approval came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Israel’s chief negotiator in Rome. The negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni played down the new housing approval.

Maj. Guy Inbar, a military spokesman, said 296 homes in the Beit El settlement were granted initial approval Wednesday. The plan would still need further official endorsement following public appeals, and activists projected that construction could begin in about a year if it passes.

Earlier this week, both settlement supporters and opponents claimed that Israel had quietly halted issuing tenders for new settlement construction in recent months, in an apparent bid to bolster Kerry’s diplomacy.

West Bank settlement construction lies at the heart of the current impasse in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinians refuse to resume talks with Israel as long as it continues to build in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, lands they claim as part of a future state, along with the Gaza Strip. Israel captured the territories in the 1967 Mideast war.

The Beit El construction is part of an agreement on compensation offered to settlers uprooted from their homes in the unauthorized Ulpana outpost last year following a court ruling.

Speaking on Israel Army Radio ahead of her return from Italy, Livni said Israel explained the context of the new housing approval to U.S. officials in a bid to pre-emptively ease tensions that could disrupt Kerry’s efforts.

“We updated the Americans immediately to tell them that this is what is at issue, and therefore there is no cause for drama or anger,” Livni said.

Palestinians charged Israel was harming American attempts at restarting negotiations.

“This is an attempt to sabotage the efforts exerted by President Obama and Secretary Kerry to revive the peace process and is a message that the Israeli government is not serious about peace,” said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel contends that peace talks should resume with no preconditions and that the fate of the settlements should be on the negotiating table.

Also Thursday, an Israeli rights group published a report claiming that most Palestinians killed during an Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip last year were civilians.

Israel launched dozens of airstrikes in Gaza to try to put a stop to near-daily rocket salvos by Palestinian militants at southern Israel. During the exchange, Palestinians fired hundreds of rockets at Israel, reaching as far as Tel Aviv, the heart of Israel’s largest metropolitan area.

B’Tselem tallied fatalities from the November fighting, saying out of 167 people killed, 87 did not take part in the violence. The report said 62 killed were combatants and seven were killed in assassinations. The affiliation of 11 people was unknown.

The group said most of the civilians were killed during the second half of the eight-day offensive and demanded an explanation.

The numbers were similar to figures compiled by The Associated Press, which reported 161 Palestinians killed, including 71 civilians, during the fighting. Six Israelis, including four civilians, were also killed.

In response to Thursday’s report, the Israeli military said civilian casualties were either a result of collateral damage or because of a mistaken strike.

Israel accuses Hamas and other Gaza militant groups of putting civilians in danger by using residential areas, schools and mosques for cover to carry out attacks.

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