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Israel authorises new settler homes in West Bank

ISRAELI Defence Minister Ehud Barak approved permits today to build 455 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank, a move that conversely could pave the way for a construction moratorium demanded by the United States.

A Defence Ministry list of the first such permits since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office in March showed the homes would be built in areas Israel has said it intends to keep in any future peace deal with the Palestinians.

Israeli officials announced on Friday that Netanyahu intended to give the go-ahead for the new projects, drawing swift condemnation from the White House.

But the step was widely seen in Israel as an attempt by Netanyahu to mollify pro-settler members of his right-leaning government and Likud party before agreeing to a freeze of construction starts in the settlements.

US President Barack Obama has brought strong pressure on Netanyahu to bend on settlements in order to open the way for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks suspended since December.

Netanyahu has resisted a total freeze, saying the "natural growth" of settler families must be accommodated. Some 2,500 housing units are currently under construction in settlements and Israeli officials said those projects would continue.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has demanded a settlement freeze as a condition for returning to peace negotiations. There was no immediate Palestinian reaction to the Israeli announcement.

US envoy George Mitchell is due back in the region later this week to try to finalise a deal with Netanyahu over settlements, ahead of a possible meeting at the UN General assembly in late September involving the Israeli leader, Abbas and Obama.

In an initial announcement today, the Defence Ministry said Barak had signed 366 building permits and planned to issue a further 84. A corrected statement said he approved a total of 455 permits.


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