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08.09.2009 Middle East

Israel Officially Backs Settlement Expansion

Israel has officially approved the construction of more than 450 new homes in the occupied West Bank, the Israeli Defence Ministry has announced.

It said the decision to build 455 housing units had been authorised by Defence Minister Ehud Barak. This is the first new government-approved construction project in the West Bank since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhyahu came to power in March.

It came despite a US pressure to halt building at settlements. Palestinians have ruled out resumption of peace talks with Israel until a complete freeze to the settlements.

A senior Palestinian Negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said Israel's decision further undermined its credibility as a partner for peace.

Construction of settlements began in 1967, shortly after the Middle East War

Some 280,000 Israelis now live in the 121 officially recognised settlements in the West Bank A further 190,000 Israelis live in settlements in occupied East Jerusalem

The largest West Bank settlement is Maale Adumim, where more than 30,000 people were living in 2005 There are a further 102 unauthorised outposts in the West Bank which are not officially recognised by Israel

The population of West Bank settlements has been growing at a rate of 5-6 per cent since 2001 settlements

'Israel's decision to approve the construction nullifies any effect that a settlement freeze, when and if announced, will have,' Mr Erekat said.

'Defence Minister Ehud Barak has authorised the construction of 455 housing units in settlement blocs,' the Israeli Defence Ministry said in a statement.

It updated its earlier statement which said Mr Barak had approved the building of 366 housing units.

The homes will be built in six settlements - all of which are included in the settlement blocs that Israel wants to keep under any peace agreement, according to Israel's Haaretz newspaper.

Last week, Israeli officials announced that Mr Netanyahu would have to give the go-ahead for the new housing units.

The issue is expected to be discussed when Mr Netanyahu's aides meet US special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, later this week.

Close to 500,000 Jews live in more than 100 settlements built since Israel's 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem.

— BBC

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