February 23, 2012 - 1:00am

The European Union's Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton criticized on Thursday Israel's recent approval of new homes in the West Bank settlement of Shilo, adding that Israeli settlements were "illegal under international law."

On Tuesday, the Defense Ministry gave preliminary approval to a plan to build 600 new homes in Shiloh, a hardline settlement deep inside the West Bank. The move drew rebukes from the United Nations and Palestinians, and threatened to raise tensions with the United States as the prime minister prepares to head to the White House.

Referring to the decision on Thursday, a spokesperson for the EU's High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Ashton said the FM was "deeply concerned by the approval on 22 February by the Israeli Civil Administration of new construction in the settlements of Shvut Rachel and Shilo as well as the retrospective approval granted for housing units already built."

"Settlements are illegal under international law. In addition the Quartet Roadmap states that Israel should not only freeze all settlement activity, but also dismantle those settlements erected since March 2001," the statement said.

Ashton also referred to the possible impact the approval of new settlement homes could have on attempts to restart the stalled Mideast peace talks, saying that it was particularly important at this point that neither party in the Middle East peace process undertakes provocative actions which undermine the prospects for continuing the dialogue which was re-established in January."

"The High Representative calls on Israel to respect its obligations under the Roadmap and reverse this decision," the statement concluded.

While Israeli officials played down the decision, saying it was made by a low-level planning committee under the control of the Defense Ministry, the move drew a series of international condemnations.

The United Nations' Mideast envoy, Robert Serry, called the announcement "deplorable" and said it "moves us further away from the goal of a two-state solution."

Speaking to reporters, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. policy on settlement activity is clear. "We don't believe it's in any way constructive to getting both sides back to the negotiating table," he said.
The Palestinians say there is no point negotiating while Israel continues to expand its settlements. After the low-level dialogue launched last month in Jordan failed to make any breakthroughs, Jordan blamed Israel Tuesday for the impasse, citing Israel's "unilateral policies."

One Israeli official said the project was only in the "embryonic" phase and would require "multiple stages of authorizations," including approval by top leaders, that would take years to complete.


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