JERUSALEM -- Israel announced plans Friday to build an additional 1,400 housing units in West Bank settlements and eastern Jerusalem, drawing fierce criticism and warnings of destroying the ongoing peace process.
The construction plans were expected, as Israel has made a point of pairing off each release of Palestinian prisoners with high-profile declarations of settlement expansion, aimed in part at placating hawkish circles in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.
Approved by Netanyahu, the tenders were published by the Housing Ministry and land authority and appear timed to avoid tension while U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry was in the region prodding Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Earlier this week, Kerry wrapped up his 10th peace mission since taking office nearly a year ago and is reportedly slated to return on Monday for more meetings with Palestinian and Israeli leaders as he tries to secure their agreement to a basic set of parameters for continuing the talks.
The latest construction plans call for building about 800 housing units in the West Bank and the rest in areas of Jerusalem seized by Israel during the 1967 Middle East War.
These projects send "a message from Netanyahu to Kerry not to come back to the region to continue his efforts," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat reportedly told Agence France-Presse.
Israeli politicians also criticized the move. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said this harms the negotiations, while Finance Minister Yair Lapid, a member of Netanyahu's cabinet, called the plans "a bad idea" and vowed to prevent them from going through.
This week, Israeli media reported that PGGM, Holland's largest pension fund manager, decided to withdraw investments from Israeli banks doing business in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Following the decision, Dutch Ambassador to Israel Casper Veldkamp was reportedly summoned by Israeli Foreign Ministry officials demanding explanation.
[Updated, 10:04 a.m. PST Jan. 10: As part of the peace negotiations renewed in July through American efforts, Netanyahu agreed to a phased release of 104 Palestinian prisoners serving long-term sentences for violent crimes. Aiming to soothe hard-line political partners and public opinion opposing the controversial decision, the government has so far followed releases with announcements of settlement expansion.
On Dec. 30, Israel freed 26 of the Palestinians, the third of four groups of prisoners it promised to release.]