Israel's plans to expand the existing Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories have evoked widespread international criticism, with several world leaders warning that the move would undermine ongoing efforts to restart the currently-stalled Middle East peace process.
The reactions came hours after Israel announced plans to construct 3,000 new settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The move followed Thursday's U.N. General Assembly vote upgrading Palestine's current "permanent observer" status at the world body to that of a "non-member observer state" despite firm opposition from the United States and Israel.
In a statement on Sunday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed "grave concern and disappointment" at the Israeli decision, and said that the move would totally cut off Palestinians in East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. He said the Israeli decision "would represent an almost fatal blow to remaining chances of securing a two-state solution."
Meanwhile, European Union Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement issued by her office on Sunday that she was "extremely worried" over Israel's large scale settlement expansion plans in the occupied Palestinian territories. She also urged Israel "to show its commitment to the early renewal of negotiations to end the conflict and the occupation by not taking forward these plans."
Further, Ashton warned that the international community's reaction to "any such decision is likely to be influenced by the extent to which such expansion may represent a strategic step undermining the prospects of a contiguous and viable Palestine with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both it and Israel." She also noted that the EU has repeatedly stated that all settlement construction is illegal under international law and constitutes an obstacle to peace.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the Israeli decision as counter-productive move that would undermine the ongoing international efforts to restart the currently dead-locked peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
"Let me reiterate that this administration, like previous administrations, has been very clear with Israel that these activities set back the cause of a negotiated peace," Clinton said addressing the Saban Center think tank in Washington on Friday. She also denounced the Palestinians seeking enhanced U.N. status, and noted that the United States had voted against the bid at the General Assembly. She also reaffirmed continued U.S. support for Israel.
Separately, British Foreign Secretary William Hague urged Israel on Saturday to reverse its decision as it would "create doubts about its stated commitment to achieving peace" with the Palestinians. He added: "Israeli settlements are illegal under international law and undermine trust between the parties. If implemented, these plans would alter the situation on the ground on a scale that makes the two-state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, increasingly difficult to achieve."
Israel had earlier responded to the U.N. vote by announcing its decision to withhold the transfer of the December installment of tax revenues amounting 460 million shekels ($120 million) to the Palestinian Authority. Israel also declared that it would construct 3,000 new settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, PA President Mahmoud Abbas returned to a hero's welcome in the West Bank on Sunday after his successful bid in getting Palestinians a "non-member observer state" status at the U.N. Noting that the development reflected the international community's continued support for the Palestinian cause, Abbas called for reconciliation among the various Palestinian groups to advance the aspirations of the Palestinian people.
The elevated status of a "non-member observer state" allows the Palestinians to participate in debates at the U.N. But it does not provide an automatic entry into U.N. agencies or provide any guarantees in that regard. However, the outcome of Thursday's vote amounts to an implicit recognition of the Palestinian statehood.
Notably, the Security Council had rejected a Palestinian bid last year for a full U.N. membership for a Palestine State with pre-1967 borders and East Jerusalem as its capital. Palestine was later admitted as a member-state to the UNESCO despite objections from Israel and the U.S.
Palestinians believe that the non-member observer state status would eventually lead to Palestine's recognition as a U.N. member-state. Such a development would allow them to drag Israel to the International Criminal Court and other international forums over issues relating to the 2008 invasion of the Gaza Strip as well as building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Currently, the U.S.-mediated peace talks are deadlocked over Israel's refusal to extend a construction freeze in the West Bank after its expiry on September 26, 2010. Palestinians insist they will return to direct peace talks only if Israel stops settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Israel has settled about 500,000 Jews in more than 100 settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since the 1967 Six-Day War. However, its annexation of the captured area is not recognized by the international community, which considers building settlements in the occupied land as illegal.
A previously agreed 2003 peace plan mediated by the Middle East Quartet, comprising the U.N., European Union, the United States and Russia, requires Israel to dismantle settlement outposts erected since 2001 and freeze all settlement activities, while Palestinians are required to halt all violence against Israel. It is ultimately expected to lead to an independent Palestinian State alongside Israel with East Jerusalem as its capital.
by RTT Staff Writer
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