Ma'an News Agency
February 15, 2011 - 1:00am

Jerusalem's municipal council on Monday approved the construction of 120 new homes in the Jewish settlement neighborhood of Ramot in annexed East Jerusalem, a councilor told AFP.

"It's not good news," Pepe Alalu of the opposition Meretz party said. "They approved 120 housing units in Ramot... there were two permits authorized, one for 56 housing units and another for 64."

The vote came on the eve of a visit by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who has said that East Jerusalem settlement building harms the prospects for relaunching peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Alalu said that the municipal committee's decision did not require endorsement by the government.

"It's final," he said.

Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib said the fact that such announcements had become commonplace did not detract from the gravity of the act.

"This doesn't change the fact that this is all illegal and unacceptable," he told AFP. "We criticize it, condemn it and expect the United States to be more effective in trying to prevent Israel from continuing the expansion of settlements, especially in Jerusalem."

Israeli public radio said that the city was expected later on Monday to approve construction of 19 synagogues in the settlement of Har Homa, on Jerusalem's southeastern edge near Bethlehem.

The radio quoted municipality sources as saying that Har Homa has 30,000 residents and only two synagogues, and there was strong public demand for more places of worship.

The municipal spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.

Ir Amim, a group that promotes coexistence in Jerusalem, accused Israeli authorities of boosting settlement construction in the city.

The organization said that since the expiry in September of a moratorium on West Bank settlement building, Israeli authorities have been "going full speed ahead with an aggressive policy of construction in east Jerusalem."

"This policy makes Jerusalem a political battlefield, and undermines its stability," it said.

Ashton is expected to hold separate talks on Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and with President Mahmoud Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, as part of a Middle East tour.

"The EU position on settlements is clear," Ashton said in a statement in December. "They are illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace. Recent settlement-related developments, including in east Jerusalem, contradict efforts by the international community for successful negotiations."

Ramot, with a population of more than 41,000, is one of the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that Israel built on land captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.

US-brokered peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians stalled in September over the issue of Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Palestinians have refused to return to direct peace talks since a 10-month Israel settlement freeze expired just three weeks after the negotiations resumed in September.

They refuse to negotiate with Israel while it builds on land they want for their promised state.

In March 2010, the Israeli interior ministry announced a plan to build 1,600 homes in Ramat Shlomo, an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem.

The announcement, which came as US Vice President Joe Biden was visiting, triggered a stern response from key ally Washington, souring relations for months.


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