JERUSALEM -- Israel has announced that it is advancing plans to build settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem amid sharp international criticism that the projects will hurt the peace process with the Palestinians.
Hours after releasing a group of Palestinian prisoners Tuesday night, Israel announced the renewal of several developments in the Jerusalem area on lands annexed after the 1967 war, which Palestinians claim for a future state.
A number of the projects announced are not new, such as the expansion of the northeast Jewish neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo by 1,500 units.
The announcement of this project during U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel in 2010 caused diplomatic tension and delayed the project, which has been reapproved since then, though not implemented.
Other projects that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is advancing in the Jerusalem area are on the on-again, off-again archaeological center by the entrance to the City of David, in the Palestinian village of Silwan, as well as a national park on the eastern slopes of the Mt. Scopus campus of the Hebrew University.
Earlier this month,Amir Peretz,minister of environmental protection, had ordered the park project frozen to examine its "international implications" after officials conceded it was really designed to block growth of adjacent Palestinian neighborhoods.
The announcement of the projects followed the release of a group of Palestinian prisoners -- the second of four groups Israel agreed to release when peace talks were renewed in July -- and was widely regarded as an attempt by Netanyahu to appease increasingly restive hawks in his government and even his own political party.
"Israel's policy is destructive for the peace process and a message to the international community that Israel does not abide by international law," said a statement on behalf of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The U.S. State Department also criticized the plans, with spokeswoman Jen Psaki stating that the U.S. does "not consider continued settlement activity or east Jerusalem construction to be steps that create a positive environment for the negotiations."
Noting that Israel had taken a difficult step in releasing Palestinian prisoners, a statement on behalf of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called settlement activity an "obstacle to peace" and urged the parties to avoid steps that undermine trust.
Meanwhile, Israeli media reported that the construction plans are far wider than those first announced after the release, and in fact seek to advance the construction of as many as 5,000 new homes in the West Bank and controversial parts of Jerusalem, although most are in very early stages.