JERUSALEM - Israel will announce plans for new settlement construction next week, coinciding with the release of a third batch of Palestinian prisoners as part of peace talks, an official said Thursday.
Palestinians have warned repeatedly that settlement building destroys the fragile US-brokered peace talks that resumed in July after a three-year hiatus.
“The Israeli government will announce tenders for new construction in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem which will coincide with the release of a third group of Palestinian prisoners,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The comments come days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to push ahead with settlement construction despite calls for restraint by US Secretary of State John Kerry and the European Union.
“We will not stop, even for a moment, building our country and becoming stronger, and developing... the settlement enterprise,” Netanyahu told members of his rightwing Likud party last week.
Kerry, who has been fighting for the survival of the peace talks, urged Netanyahu earlier this month “to exercise maximum restraint in announcing new construction” Haaretz daily has reported.
Israel is due to release 26 Palestinian prisoners on Sunday, in line with commitments to the US-backed peace process which also called on both sides to negotiate for nine months.
Israel agreed to free 104 Palestinian prisoners and has already released 52 in two separate batches. A third group is to be freed on December 29 and the last inmates are to walk free in March 2014.
The previous releases in August and October were accompanied by Israeli announcements of fresh construction on land the Palestinians want for a future state, provoking Palestinian fury.
In October plans for 1,500 Jewish settler homes in Arab east Jerusalem came to light almost immediately after Israel began freeing the second batch of 26 Palestinian prisoners.
Israel had likewise announced construction of more than 2,000 new settler homes in August, when it freed the first group of detainees.
Palestinian officials have angrily said Israeli settlement plans destroy the peace process and the international community has also denounced past construction moves.
Israeli media Thursday suggested that the new construction push is aimed at pacifying Netanyahu’s coalition partners following a surge of violence along the Israel-Gaza border and in the West Bank.
Maariv daily quoted an unnamed top official as saying Netanyahu had initially agreed to US and EU appeals to delay by two to three weeks the announcement of the new constructions.
But Netanyahu apparently changed his mind under pressure from his coalition partners so as not to send out a “signal of weakness” to the Palestinians from Israel, Maariv said.
Mass-selling Yediot Aharonot added that Netanyahu was once again trying “to pacify the rightwingers” in his coalition.
Cross-border exchanges between Israel and Gaza have increased in recent days, and Israel has said it holds the coastal enclave’s Palestinian Islamist rulers Hamas responsible for the unrest.
Netanyahu criticised Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas for failing to condemn the latest surge in violence, including the death of an Israeli man shot while repairing the border fence with Gaza on Tuesday.
“The terrorist attacks of recent days against Israelis are the direct result of incitement to hatred in the press and broadcast in Palestinian schools,” Netanyahu said in a statement Wednesday.
He added he was “disappointed that president Abbas has not yet condemned the recent terrorist acts as one would expect from a partner in peace negotiations”.
The Israeli army has retaliated to the fatal shooting of the Israeli man by launching tank and air strikes on the Gaza Strip that killed a toddler and wounded six other Palestinians.