UN, Biden condemn Israeli settlement plans

President Abbas urges Arab "urgent policy measures"


United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday condemned Israeli plans to build 1,600 more homes on occupied land where Palestinians seek their own state, echoing comments made earlier by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

"The secretary-general condemns the approval of plans for the building of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem by the Israeli Ministry of Interior earlier today," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said in a statement.

"(Ban) reiterates that settlements are illegal under international law. He underscores that settlement activity is contrary to Israel's obligations under the Roadmap (peace plan), and undermines any movement towards a viable peace process," he said.

Even the office of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday blasted the announcement.

"The entourage of Defense Minister Ehud Barak expresses its anger after the unwarranted announcement which affects peace negotiations with the Palestinians -- negotiations of the highest interest for Israel," his office said in a statement.

"Hindering negotiations"

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden earlier condemned the Israeli plans and said they "undermine the trust" and "runs counter to the constructive discussions" that he had in Israel.

"I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units," Biden said in a statement issued after he arrived 90 minutes late for a dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Israeli decision also infuriated the Palestinians, who consider settlements to be a major hurdle to reach peace and want occupied east Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state.

"This is a dangerous decision and will hinder the negotiations," Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP.

"We consider the decision to build in east Jerusalem to be a judgment that the American efforts have failed before the indirect negotiations have even begun."

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas later telephoned Arab League chief Amr Mussa to call for "urgent policy measures" in response to "the escalating Israeli provocations," his office said without elaborating.

The Israeli move came two days after the Palestinians grudgingly agreed to indirect talks after months of US shuttle diplomacy and coincided with the trip by Biden, the highest-level Obama administration official to visit Israel.

Israel on Monday had already given the go-ahead for 112 new homes in a West Bank settlement in an exception to a partial moratorium on settlement construction announced in November which does not include east Jerusalem.

The secretary-general condemns the approval of plans for the building of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem by the Israeli Ministry of Interior earlier today

Martin Nesirky, the UN

Ban visits Israel, WBank, Gaza

The U.N. chief, in the meantime, will visit Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip after a meeting of the so-called "quartet" of Middle East peace mediators in Moscow next week, a U.N. spokesman said on Tuesday.

Russia had offered to host a ministerial meeting of the quartet, which consists of the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia.

"The secretary-general is expected to visit Israel, the West Bank and Gaza following his attendance at the quartet meeting scheduled on March 19 in Moscow," said spokesman Martin Nesirky. He gave no further details on the trip.

Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to up to four months of indirect negotiations. U.S. President Barack Obama's envoy George Mitchell is due back in the region next week to try to set the structure and scope of the "proximity talks," in which Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will meet separately with an American mediator.

The Moscow meeting would provide a good opportunity to "assess and encourage the earliest possible resumption of the proximity talks which will eventually, I hope, lead to direct negotiations between the parties," Ban said on Monday.

Gaza is controlled by Hamas, an armed Islamist group that calls for the Jewish state's destruction. The Palestinian Authority, which is based in the West Bank and is recognized as the legitimate government for the Palestinian territories, has no influence over Gaza.

Ban had visited Gaza in January 2009 soon after a three-week Israeli offensive in the Mediterranean coastal enclave ended. He was the most senior diplomatic figure to visit the territory in years.

To isolate Hamas, Israel has denied almost all international guests entry from its territory to Gaza since the offensive.

More than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed after Israel attacked Gaza in December 2008 to try to end Hamas rocket fire against its cities. Critics charged that Israel used excessive and indiscriminate firepower. Israel blamed the militants for hiding among civilians.

I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units

US Vice President Joe Biden