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Israel's building plan heightens tensions

JERUSALEM -- Israel granted the go-ahead yesterday for construction of 1,100 Jewish housing units in east Jerusalem, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ruled out any freeze in settlement building, heightening tensions after last week's Palestinian move to seek UN membership.

The Interior Ministry said the homes would be built in Gilo, a sprawling Jewish enclave in southeast Jerusalem. It said construction could begin after a mandatory 60-day period for public comment, a process that was called a formality.

The announcement drew swift condemnation from the Palestinians, who claim east Jerusalem as their future capital. The United States, the European Union and the United Nations all expressed disappointment with Israel's decision.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized the announcement as counterproductive to efforts to relaunch Mideast peace talks.

Richard Miron, a spokesman for UN Mideast envoy Robert Serry, said the announcement "sends the wrong signal at this sensitive time."

Since capturing east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war, Israel has ringed it with about 10 enclaves meant to solidify its control. Gilo, close to the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, with 50,000 residents, is among the largest. Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem has not been internationally recognized.

Meir Margalit, a Jerusalem city council member who is critical of east Jerusalem construction, said city officials had given initial approval to the Gilo project more than a year ago.

He said he didn't expect the project to be "an obstacle of peace" as it is in an existing Jewish area that is widely expected to remain part of Israel in any peace deal. But he said Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the hawkish Shas Party appeared to have timed the approval in response to the Palestinian statehood bid.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Israeli decision amounted to "1,100 no's to the resumption of peace talks."

He urged the United States to change its position and support the Palestinians in their quest for UN membership. The United States has repeatedly called on Israel to cease settlement construction on land that could constitute a Palestinian state, but says the UN is not the proper place to resolve the conflict.

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