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Israel okays East Jerusalem settlement just before Kerry's peace visit

By Kareem Khadder and Michael Martinez, CNN
June 27, 2013 -- Updated 0930 GMT (1730 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Palestinian chief negotiator calls international community to stop settlements
  • Israeli planning committee approves 69 homes for an East Jerusalem settlement
  • Secretary of State John Kerry is to visit Jerusalem this week to renew peace talks
  • Settlement approval is "provocation... a foolish move," Jerusalem councilman says

Jerusalem (CNN) -- Israel approved Wednesday the construction of a settlement in East Jerusalem just before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is to visit the country on a peace mission.

Kerry will meet with Israeli, Palestinian Authority and Jordanian officials in Jordan and Jerusalem from Thursday to Saturday in the wake of President Barack Obama's efforts in Israel last March urging renewed peace talks.

Palestinian chief peace negotiator Saeb Erekat called out to the world Thursday to stop Israel from building more settlement homes. Letting Tel Aviv get away with it, takes away any motivation for Israel to work towards peace, he said.

In January, the United Nations Human Rights Council said Israeli settlements amount to "creeping annexation" of Palestinian territories by Israel and have taken a "heavy toll" on the rights and sovereignty of Palestinians.

The construction of new homes is "taking Palestinian land, lives and livelihoods," Erekat lamented.

Keeping pace with Shimon Peres
Israel approves settlements in West Bank

Wednesday's approval of a 69-unit settlement in East Jerusalem -- which Palestinians consider to be the capital of their future state one day -- harkens to an incident in 2010 when Israel announced another East Jerusalem settlement during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the announcement "insulting" to the United States.

On Wednesday, Meir Margalit, a Jerusalem City Council member from the left-wing Meretz party, criticized Wednesday's settlement approval and described it as "provocation" by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.

The approval by an Israeli planning committee was part of a "very long process" and now means that construction can start at any time, Margalit said.

"This is a provocation by Netanyahu's government when John Kerry is coming to re-start the negotiations," Margalit said.

"To approve these houses in Har Homa, or also known as Jabal Abu Ghneim in East Jerusalem, is a foolish move. This means that Israel has no serious intentions to restart the peace process," Margalit said.

Israel's construction of settlements "is more important than peace in the Middle East," Margalit charged.

But a senior Israeli government official who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue said there was no political influence behind the approval process.

"This is private land, private constructions and nothing to do with the government or with government agendas," the official said.

Brachie Sprung, an advisor to the Jerusalem mayor, said construction permission was granted by local planning and building committee.

"It should be noted that the municipality has no legal right to stop the property ownership of the citizens to whom the ground belongs," Sprung said in a statement.

"There is no change in the policy of the municipality over the last four years, and we are continuing to build in all the suburbs of the city according to the development program for Jews and Arabs as one," Sprung said.

Thousands of housing units are expected to be built throughout Jerusalem in coming years, Sprung said. "New building in Jerusalem is necessary for the development of the city and gives the opportunity for youngsters and students to live and buy," Sprung added.

Hagit Ofran, settlement watch director for the Israeli activist group Peace Now, said the construction plan was initially filed in April 2012, and the length of time behind its approval is typical.

CNN's Kareem Khadder reported from Jerusalem and Michael Martinez wrote and reported from Los Angeles. Mike Schwartz also contributed from Jerusalem.

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