Israel faces European backlash over housing plan

INT

Israel faced concerted criticism from Europe on Monday over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to expand settlement building after the United Nations' de facto recognition of Palestinian statehood.

Britain, France and Sweden summoned the Israeli ambassadors in their respective capitals to convey deep disapproval of the plan to erect 3,000 more homes in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Ahead of a visit by the Israeli Primi Minister this week, Germany, considered Israel's closest ally in Europe, urged it to refrain from expanding settlements, and Russia said it viewed the Israeli moves with serious concern.

Angered by the UN General Assembly's upgrade on Thursday of the Palestinians' status in the world body from "observer entity" to "non-member state", Israel said the next day it would build the new dwellings for settlers.

Such projects in the past, on land Israel captured in a 1967 war and which Palestinians seek for a future state, have routinely drawn almost pro-forma world condemnation.

However, in a dramatic shift that Netanyahu would have certainly realised would raise the alarm among Palestinians and in world capitals, his pro-settler government also ordered "preliminary zoning and planning work" for thousands of housing units in areas including the so-called "E1" zone east of Jerusalem.

Such construction in the barren hills of E1 still on the drawing board and never put into motion in the face of opposition from its main ally, the United States could bisect the West Bank, cut off Palestinians from Jerusalem and further dim their hopes for a contiguous state.

The settlement plan, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, would deal "an almost fatal blow" to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Britain made it clear that it would not support the strong Israeli retaliation over the UN vote.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron however played down talk of recalling Britain's ambassador in Tel Aviv. "We are not proposing to do anything further at this stage," the spokesman said. "We are continuing to have conversations with the Israeli government and others."

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