JERUSALEM (AP) — The U.S. Embassy said Monday it was “deeply concerned” by Israeli plans to build hundreds of new homes in West Bank settlements, calling the Israeli enclaves “illegitimate” and an obstacle to resuming direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
In a defiant response to a deadly attack on a settler family over the weekend, Israel swiftly approved the construction of between 300 and 500 new homes in major West Bank settlement blocks. Jewish settlement construction is at the crux of the current impasse in peace efforts.
“They murder, we build,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday during a condolence call to the grieving family. Palestinian militants are presumed to have carried out the assault.
The plans for new construction infuriated Palestinians, and together with the attack that killed parents and three of their children, drove prospects for renewed peacemaking even further out of reach. A Netanyahu aide said the Israeli government informed the U.S. — which has been toiling with little success to break the negotiations deadlock — of the decision.
“We’re deeply concerned by continuing Israeli actions on settlements in the West Bank,” the statement from the U.S. Embassy said. “As we said before, we view these settlements as illegitimate and as running counter to efforts to resume direct negotiations.”
Palestinians refuse to negotiate until Israel halts building on occupied territories they claim for a future state. Israel says negotiations should not be held hostage to conditions and note that previous rounds of talks took place while construction proceeded.
A senior Israeli official responded to the U.S. criticism by reasserting Israel’s position that the major settlement blocs, where most of the 300,000 West Bank settlers live, will remain in Israeli hands under any final peace accord.
“There is no contradiction in building inside existing blocs and the desire to move ahead in peace and for a solution of two states for two peoples,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the U.S. response on the record.
In an interview broadcast earlier Monday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the deadly attack in the settlement of Itamar as “despicable, immoral and inhuman.”
Israeli officials had accused Abbas of only tepidly condemning the carnage. And they indirectly blamed his government for the attack, calling it the product of incitement against Israel that the Palestinian Authority allows.
Abbas rejected Israel’s allegations that Palestinian clerics preach incitement, saying his government hands out a uniform sermon to be delivered by all. And he called for a joint Israeli-Palestinian-U.S. team to examine claims of incitement in Palestinian textbooks.
He said his government would have prevented the assault if it had had advance knowledge, and that he would not permit attacks to multiply.
Israel has long contended that Palestinian textbooks and official media preach hatred toward Israel and that the killers of Israelis are often glorified.
On Sunday, a group of activists from Abbas’ Fatah movement dedicated a square in the West Bank city of Ramallah after Dalal Mughrabi, a female militant who carried out a 1978 bus attack that killed 37 Israelis. Aides to Abbas said they tried to stop the ceremony and the move was not officially sanctioned.
Still, Israel has not produced evidence that incitement contributed to the killings. The military has taken several people into custody in connection with the attacks but has provided no further details.
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a near-defunct militant group with loose ties to Fatah, claimed responsibility for the attack, but neither Israeli nor Palestinians officials took the claim seriously. Abbas said Palestinian security officials were working with Israel to find the assailant.