JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel unveiled plans on Sunday to build hundreds of new homes on occupied land near Jerusalem next year, drawing protests from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the eve of renewed peace talks.
Israel also vowed no let up in its “real war” against Hamas Islamists who seized control of the Gaza Strip in June after routing Abbas’s forces. Militants fire rockets from Gaza into southern Israel.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected the idea of any talks with Hamas over a possible ceasefire and Vice Premier Haim Ramon said Israel’s strategic goal was to topple the group’s government in Gaza using military and economic pressure.
The issue of Israeli settlement building in the Jerusalem area has clouded negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians announced at a U.S.-sponsored peace conference last month in Annapolis in the United States.
The first round of talks following Annapolis opened in discord with Palestinians demanding Israel drop plans to build some 300 new homes in an area near Jerusalem known to Israelis as Har Homa and to Palestinians as Abu Ghneim.
Ahead of a second round of talks scheduled for Monday, Israel’s Construction Ministry unveiled a $25 million budget proposal for building 740 homes in two settlements in 2008.
The proposal, which must be approved by parliament, includes 500 homes at Har Homa and 240 at the Maale Adumim settlement near Jerusalem. Last year’s ministry budget allowed for the construction of nearly 1,000 homes in the same two settlements.
“Har Homa is an integral part of Jerusalem and Israel will not stop building there,” said Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Rafi Eitan.
Cabinet minister Yuli Tamir said Israel had a right to build houses “in those areas that are going to be included in its future territory,” but ruled out building beyond that.
The Jewish state hopes to keep Maale Adumim and other large settlement blocs in any final peace deal with the Palestinians.
“Why is this settlement activity going on at a time when we are talking about a final (peace) deal?” asked Abbas, who is expected to meet Olmert as early as Tuesday.
Abbas and Olmert agreed in Annapolis to try to reach a statehood agreement by the end of 2008.
But Palestinian negotiators said substantive talks over borders and the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees would not begin until Israel committed itself to halt all settlement activity, as called for under the “road map” peace plan.
Olmert’s spokesman, Mark Regev, said Israel would abide by the road map by not allowing “outward growth” of existing settlements, by preventing new settlements from being built and by not confiscating any additional Palestinian land.
The road map also calls on the Palestinians to rein in militants, an obligation that Israel says must be fulfilled in the occupied West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip before a Palestinian state can be established.
Israel has killed more than 20 militants in Gaza in the past week as part of a stepped-up campaign to halt the rocket fire.
Hamas did not rule out a future ceasefire with Israel if the Jewish state first stopped attacks in Gaza. But Olmert told his cabinet “this war will continue” and that talks with Hamas would only be possible if it recognized Israel and renounced violence.
Olmert’s cabinet on Sunday approved spending just over $200 million over the next five years to build an anti-rocket system meant to protect southern Israeli towns from rocket fire. The defense ministry estimates the system, called Iron Dome, will be operational in two-and-a-half years.