JERUSALEM — New Israeli plans for settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as retaliation against the new Palestinian consensus government backed by Hamas have added to tensions between Israel and Washington and prompted threats Thursday of countermeasures from Palestinian officials.
The Israeli Housing Ministry published bids late Wednesday for the construction of nearly 1,500 housing units in various settlements in what the housing minister, Uri Ariel, called “an appropriate Zionist response to the establishment of the Palestinian terror government.” He added in a statement that he believed the marketing of these units “will be just the beginning.”
Palestinian officials reacted furiously to the announcement. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, the official spokesman for Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, said in a statement Thursday that the Palestinian leadership would “respond in an unprecedented way” to the Israeli step. He did not elaborate.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator in US-brokered peace talks, said in a statement, “We believe this latest announcement is a clear sign that Israel is moving toward a major escalation,” he said. “We are carefully studying and weighing our response.” He called on the world powers “to hold this Israeli government and its members accountable under international law.”
The move came against the backdrop of a dispute between Israel and the Obama administration about the new Palestinian government, which grew out of a recent reconciliation pact between the Palestine Liberation Organization, led by Abbas, and Hamas, the Islamist militant group that has controlled Gaza since 2007.
Israel has urged the world to shun the Palestinian government, which was sworn in Monday, on the grounds that it rests on the support of Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, and much of the Western world and which refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
But the Palestinian Cabinet is made up largely of professionals who are not formally tied to either Abbas’ mainstream Fatah party or to Hamas and who have declared themselves committed to Abbas’ peaceful program and to international principles like the renunciation of violence and the recognition of Israel.
On that basis, the Obama administration says it will continue to work with the Palestinian government and provide aid to it while continuing to monitor it. The European Union and several other major countries have followed suit.
The new government is supposed to prepare for elections in about six months and is intended to reunite the West Bank and Gaza Strip after a bitter seven-year political schism.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that he was “deeply troubled” by the US decision to work with the Palestinian government, telling the Associated Press Hamas has murdered “countless innocent civilians” and “seeks Israel’s liquidation.” He said “the United States must make it absolutely clear” to Abbas that the pact with Hamas “is simply unacceptable.”
Israeli settlement activity has long been a source of friction between Israel and the United States. The Obama administration has described settlements as “illegitimate,” and US officials have pointed to repeated Israeli announcements in the past few months advancing plans for thousands of housing units as a prime contributing factor to the failure of the US-brokered peace talks. Most countries consider the settlements a violation of international law.
Israel suspended the negotiations in late April after the Palestinians announced their reconciliation pact and days before talks were due to expire.