JERUSALEM — The Israeli government approved the construction of housing in a West Bank settlement Sunday, a move likely to draw international criticism and complicate stalled negotiations with the Palestinians.
Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat called the project "another slap in the face of the peace process."
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert approved a plan to renew construction of a 330-unit project in Givat Zeev, a West Bank settlement just outside of Jerusalem that already is home to about 10,000 Israeli settlers.
The project originally began in 1999 but was suspended when the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, broke out the following year.
"You had the beginning of the intifada, the high-tech bubble burst and there was a general downturn in the economy," Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said, explaining the long delay in restarting the project.
With the Israeli housing market booming again, the builders asked to proceed with a downsized version of the original 750-unit contract in Givat Zeev, Regev said. Any settlement construction must receive top-level government approval.
The United States has called settlement expansion an impediment to peace.
Regev said the expansion was in line with the government's international commitments. Under terms of the so-called road map peace plan, Israel agreed to halt the creation of settlements, stop expansion of existing settlements and dismantle small, ad hoc outposts that dot the West Bank. But Israeli officials also interpreted that commitment as exempting those settlements, such as Givat Zeev, that Israel intends to keep.
"We've said all along that there won't be a complete freeze in construction in the large settlement blocs," Regev said. "We've been very consistent and upfront."
Israeli Housing Minister Zeev Boim said the construction also would include 750 homes in Pisgat Zeev, a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem. Israel captured and annexed east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war, but Palestinians claim it as their capital and the annexation is not recognized internationally.
The construction comes at a sensitive time for U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations. A Palestinian gunman killed eight students Thursday night at a Jerusalem religious seminary. Earlier in the week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas suspended peace talks after a several-day Israeli incursion in the Gaza Strip killed more than 100 Palestinians. Abbas later agreed to return to the negotiating table.
U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. William Fraser III, an envoy for the Bush administration, is scheduled to arrive Thursday for joint meetings to assess each side's fulfillment of obligations under the road-map agreement.
Erekat called the timing of the settlement expansion just before Frazier's visit "outrageous."
Olmert's approval has been interpreted by some as a gesture to right-wing partners in his fragile coalition government.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.