JERUSALEM Israel has given final approval to the building of 40 new homes at a settlement in the occupied West Bank to replace temporary structures there, the settlement's council head said Monday.
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed over a year ago in a dispute over Israeli settlement building.
"Building tenders were issued this week after Defense Minister Ehud Barak had already signed off on the construction plans," Efrat council head Oded Revivi told Reuters.
A Defense Ministry statement confirmed that an Israel Lands Administration tender had been published for building the 40 homes following Barak's approval of the plans "some months ago."
Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the accelerated construction of some 2,000 housing units in settlements that Israel has said it intends to keep as part of any future peace deal with the Palestinians.
The decision to step up building came in response to Palestinian efforts to seek United Nations statehood status after their frustration at a lack of progress in peace talks.
The announcement drew expressions of disappointment and concern from Washington and the European Union who are part of the Quartet of peace mediators along with Russia and the United Nations.
An Israeli official said the building tenders were issued for housing in eastern parts of Jerusalem and for Efrat and Maale Adumim, Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank that Israel has indicated it wants to keep in a future peace deal.
Revivi said the site where construction was to begin shortly was part of Efrat's master building plan and that while only 40 houses had currently been approved, there was room for a total of 500 homes there.
The Palestinians are looking to establish a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, land Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East War.
Israel later annexed East Jerusalem, a move that has not won international recognition. It withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and in 2007 the territory was taken over by Hamas Islamists, who are rivals to Western-backed Abbas and refuse to recognize Israel.
Netanyahu has called to restart peace talks without preconditions but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says he will return to talks only after Israel totally freezes its settlement activity.
(Writing by Ori Lewis)