Israel has approved the construction of 117 homes and preliminary plans for 3,000 more housing units in one of the West Bank's largest settlements, officials said Tuesday, despite repeated U.S. appeals that Israel freeze settlement expansion.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, was quoted as saying Israel will press ahead with construction in large West Bank settlement blocs, the AP reports.
The settlement plans could raise tensions with the U.S. just days before Sharon is to travel to New York to address the U.N. General Assembly. Sharon is expected to meet there with U.S. President George W. Bush who has asked Israel to observe a settlement freeze, in line with the internationally backed "road map" peace.
The latest construction plans also drew swift condemnation from the Palestinians, who claim all of the West Bank for part of a future state.
The new construction is planned in Ariel, a sprawling settlement of nearly 18,000 people deep inside the West Bank.
Ariel's mayor, Ron Nachman, said the government recently approved the construction of 117 housing units in the center of town, part of a plan frozen in the mid-1990s by late-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The Israeli Defense Ministry and officials in Sharon's office confirmed the project's approval.
Nachman told The Associated Press that the Defense Ministry has also approved preliminary plans for a new 3,000-home neighborhood in the southern part of his settlement. The project would nearly double the size of Ariel.
The United States, along with the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, has repeatedly demanded Israel freeze all settlement expansion, in line with the road map.
"We've been clear with the Israelis on their obligations under the road map and President Bush has specifically called on the Israelis not only to remove illegal outposts but to stop settlement expansion," U.S. Embassy spokesman Stewart Tuttle said Tuesday.
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