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Israel to build homes in the West Bank

Israel announced plans Friday to build 1,400 new homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territory the Palestinians claim for their future state.

Though it was no surprise, the announcement is likely to anger Palestinians and could cast a shadow on U.S.-led peace efforts.

Israel's housing ministry said 800 new houses will be built in the West Bank and 600 in east Jerusalem.

The statement had been expected after Israel released 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in late December, part of a deal made last summer when Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resumed. It was the third of four pledged prisoner releases.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, condemned the announcement, saying it undermines the "American efforts aimed at creating a peace track toward a two-state solution."

The announcement was expected earlier in January but was postponed, apparently to avoid any coinciding with last week's visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. While Israel is not obligated to halt construction under the peace talks, Kerry has urged restraint and said the building raises questions about Israel's commitment.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu previously has issued similar construction announcements to blunt criticism he faces at home over the prisoner releases as many of the Palestinians freed were convicted of killing Israeli civilians and soldiers. Israelis widely resent the release of the prisoners, who they view as terrorists.

"Releasing the prisoners was an immoral step that shouldn't have happened," said Isaac Herzog, chief of the opposition Labor Party. "The housing ministry's announcement at the time of negotiations damages negotiations."

Herzog said Netanyahu should have halted settlement construction rather than release the prisoners, and blamed hard-liners in the prime minister's coalition for the move.

The new homes are planned in Ramat Shlomo, an enclave in east Jerusalem, and in various West Bank settlements.

The Palestinians demand those areas, captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war, for their state. They long had refused to negotiate with Israel while settlement construction continued.

Since the peace talks resumed last summer, Israel has issued 5,500 tenders for new housing in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, said Yariv Oppenheimer of the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now.

It was a significant increase, compared to the annual average of between 2,000 and 3,000 in previous years, he said.

The fate of the territory is a main focus in peace talks. Netanyahu faces tough opposition to relinquishing territory from critics within his government. Many cite its religious and historic significance for devout Jews, consider it the biblical Jewish heartland or are concerned over security issues.

Also Friday, Netanyahu issued a statement condemning vandals who damaged the vehicle of a senior army officer in the West Bank. Israeli media reported his tires were slashed in a "price tag" attack as he was talking with community leaders in Yitzhar about recent violence in the area between Israelis and Palestinians.

That phrase is usually used by a fringe of extremists to describe vandalism committed to protest what they perceive as the Israeli government's pro-Palestinian policies and in retaliation for Palestinian attacks.

Mosques, churches, dovish Israeli groups and even Israeli military bases have been vandalized in "price tag" assaults in recent years. The practice has been widely condemned by Israeli leaders across the political spectrum.

"This is a despicable act that does not represent the settler public in Judea and Samaria," Netanyahu said, using the biblical terms for the West Bank. He said the perpetrators will be brought to justice.

The Canadian Press

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