JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel on Wednesday announced plans to build 1,500 new homes in east Jerusalem, the part of the city claimed by the Palestinians, just hours after it freed a group of Palestinian prisoners as part of a deal to set peace talks in motion.
The settlement construction was seen as an attempt by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make up for the prisoner release, for which he has been sharply criticized at home. The prisoners were jailed for deadly attacks on Israelis.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Lital Apter said Wednesday that the 1,500 apartments would be built in Ramat Shlomo, a sprawling settlement in east Jerusalem. She said Israel also plans to develop an archaeology and tourism site near the Old City, home to Jerusalem's most sensitive holy sites.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek all three areas for a future state, with east Jerusalem as their capital.
Israel considers all of Jerusalem to be its eternal capital, and Netanyahu has vowed never to divide the city. Israel has built a series of settlements, including Ramat Shlomo, to solidify its control.
Although Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem is not internationally recognized, it considers these settlements to be neighborhoods of the city.
Israel first announced the Ramat Shlomo plans in 2010 during Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel, sparking a diplomatic rift with Washington that took months to mend. Wednesday's decision is the final approval needed, and construction can now begin immediately, officials said.
The release of 26 Palestinians after midnight Tuesday was the second of four prisoner releases meant to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks in an effort to reach a final agreement between the two sides.
The Palestinians had long refused to resume peace negotiations with Israel unless it ends settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Israel refused, insisting that settlements and other core issues, including security, should be resolved through negotiations.
Under a compromise brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the Palestinians agreed to resume talks in late July after Israel agreed to the release of the longest-serving Palestinian prisoners. In all, 104 Palestinian convicts are to be released in four rounds over the coming months.
The Palestinians condemned the latest settlement plans, but it was not immediately clear if it would directly impact the talks, which are taking place behind closed doors and away from the public eye as both sides had agreed to.
"We are worried and concerned that if Israel continues with the expansion of settlements, this might kill the two states vision which we would like to see on this land," said Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.
Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the move, saying it was "destructive to the peace efforts and will only lead to more tensions."
Israel is holding roughly 5,000 Palestinian prisoners on charges ranging from throwing stones at security forces to killing civilians in bombings, shootings and other attacks. The prisoners released overnight Wednesday had all been convicted of murder in the deaths of Israelis.
Israel has a long history of lopsided prisoner exchanges with its Arab adversaries. But this week's release appeared especially charged because Israel appeared to be receiving little in return except for the opportunity to conduct negotiations that few people believe will be successful.
Danny Danon, a hawkish minister from Netanyahu's Likud party condemned the release. "It is tough to see terrorists celebrate when their place is either under the ground or in jail," Danon told Israel Radio, adding that the release sends the wrong message to young Palestinians. He stressed that his party was committed to construction in east Jerusalem.
Yossi Beilin, a dovish former Israeli peace negotiator, questioned the wisdom of releasing "despicable" killers while building in east Jerusalem during talks with the Palestinians.
He told Israel Radio he thinks it would have been better if construction had been frozen in order to restart talks with the Palestinians and prisoner release put off until a final peace agreement.
Also, critics such as dovish members of Netanyahu's coalition said he could have avoided the release if he had accepted Palestinian calls either to stop construction in West Bank settlements or base negotiations over the borders of a future Palestinian state on Israel's pre-1967 lines.
In the West Bank and Gaza, thousands celebrated long into the night as they welcomed the released prisoners. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas greeted them at a ceremony at his West Bank headquarters.
"There will be no final agreement without the release of all the prisoners," Abbas told the raucous crowd.
The fate of the prisoners is a deeply emotional issue in Palestinian society. After decades of fighting Israel, many families have had a member imprisoned and the release of prisoners has been a long-standing demand. While Israel views the prisoners as terrorists, the Palestinians seem them as heroes in a struggle against Israeli occupation.
The prisoner issue is extremely painful for Israelis whose loved ones were killed in attacks. Relatives of those killed had appealed against their release and held protests.