Israel's housing minister on Thursday called for doubling the number of Jewish settler homes in the southern West Bank city of Hebron, even as peace talks continue with the Palestinians.
Uri Ariel, who leads the far-right Jewish Home party and lives in a West Bank settlement himself, told army radio he supported “concrete plans for the construction of 100 (new) homes in Hebron.”
“The land for this exists, and we're preparing the (building) project. We hope that during the coming year we can begin to build,” Ariel said.
The flashpoint city of Hebron, home to nearly 200,000 Palestinians, also comprises some 80 settler homes in the center of town housing about 700 Jews who live under Israeli army protection.
The Hebron settlement issue came to the fore last month when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the Jewish resettlement of a long-disputed Palestinian home, in response to the September 22 killing of an Israeli soldier by a suspected Palestinian gunman.
The government had removed 15 settlers from the house last year for legal reasons, but the Israeli soldier's shooting prompted Netanyahu to call for “strengthening the settlements” and re-occupying the home.
The settlement issue, which derailed peace talks with the Palestinians in 2010, has raised the ire of Palestinian officials in the current round of U.S.-brokered negotiations, which began at the end of July.
Israel announced in August that it had approved the construction of more than 2,000 new settler homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and figures released this month showed construction starts had increased by 70 percent on last year in those territories.
Settlement building in the occupied West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem is considered illegal under international law.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who brought the two sides back to the negotiating table, met Netanyahu in Rome on Wednesday to discuss several issues, including the peace talks.
Few details have emerged from the talks, which are being held under a U.S.-imposed media blackout.
Kerry said Monday that the talks had “intensified” but did not elaborate.