(dpa) - Israel plans to build nearly 2,000 new apartments in Jewish settlements in the West Bank in 2008, the largest number in a decade, an Israeli newspaper reported Wednesday.
The homes are all being built in the large settlement blocks Israel wants to keep as part of a final peace deal with the Palestinians, including Giv'at Ze'ev, Ma'aleh Adumim and Beitar Ilit near Jerusalem and Ariel in the northern West Bank, Yediot Ahronot reported.
The building projects of several hundred homes in each of these settlements add up to 1,908 apartments, the largest number since the 1990s, when Israeli building in the West Bank peaked and some 5,000 houses were built in settlements annually.
Israel's Housing Ministry exposed the projects in its annual plan, presented recently, the daily said. A Housing Ministry spokesman would not confirm the numbers.
The figure of nearly 2,000 homes applies to settlement blocks near Jerusalem, but does not include additional construction which is going on within the city's municipal boundaries.
According to a report published Monday by the Israeli Peace Now organization, Israel wants to build another 3,600 apartments in East Jerusalem, in Jewish neighbourhoods it wants to keep as part of its capital in the future, such as Har Homa and Pisgat Ze'ev.
A spokeswoman for Peace Now, Hagit Ofran, condemned the construction, saying the Israeli government "is destroying the peace process with its own hands."
A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel was keeping its commitment to freeze construction elsewhere in the West Bank, outside the large settlement blocks it plans to keep "anyhow."
"The only construction going on is in the Jewish neighbourhoods of Jerusalem and the large population centres. They are areas which will stay inside Israel in any final status agreement with the Palestinians," Mark Regev told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.
"We have every interest in Annapolis succeeding," he insisted of the peace negotiations which were revived in the Maryland capital four months ago.
Olmert reportedly unfroze a large building project in one of the blocks, Beitar Ilit south-west of Jerusalem, after the ultra- Orthodox coalition Shas party threatened to abstain in a no- confidence vote called by the hardline opposition Likud party this week.
The Israeli premier and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed at a November 27 conference in Annapolis to end a seven-year freeze in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and strive to reach a peace deal on paper by the end of 2008.
But the ongoing Israeli construction, as well as rocket attacks and Israeli retaliatory military operations from and in the Gaza Strip have since cast a dark shadow over the negotiations.
Israel says that an April 2004 letter by US President George W. Bush, which said a future peace deal should take into account "existing major Israeli populations centers" on the ground, effectively backed its claim to its main West Bank settlement blocks.
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak offered a partial territorial exchange in return for the settlement blocks before negotiations broke off amid the outbreak of the current Palestinian uprising in late 2000.
A Palestinian cabinet minister Wednesday slammed the construction in the blocks. He nevertheless said the Palestinian Authority was ready to negotiate a "limited exchange of land" in return for a "safe passage" linking the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
The PA "rejects cutting off any piece of the future Palestinian state by building Israeli settlements or anything else," Mahmoud al- Habbash, the minister of agriculture in the West Bank-based "caretaker" government of Acting Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, told a news conference in Ramallah.
His statement was rare, but in line with what Abbas himself had said ahead of the Annapolis conference.
Outlining Palestinian demands in an address on state television last October, Abbas had said the Palestinians want a state on the entire "6,205 square kilometres" of the West Bank and Gaza.
He then added there may be some minor alterations to the armistice line separating the West Bank and Israel, but any land exchanged should be equal in quality and quantity.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia, however, in a meeting with officials from his and Abbas' Fatah party Tuesday, condemned "all settlement activity, old and new," as "illegitimate, illegal and unacceptable."