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Israel presses on with new homes

Israel is moving forward with a plan to build nearly 900 new settlement housing units in east Jerusalem in a move that angered Palestinians a day before the sides were to hold peace talks for the first time in nearly five years.

The Israeli announcement threatened to poison the atmosphere ahead of tomorrow's talks, which come after months of mediation by US Secretary of State John Kerry. In an initial gesture ahead of the talks, Israel was set to release 26 Palestinian prisoners.

The last round of substantive talks collapsed in late 2008, and negotiations have remained stalled mainly over the issue of Israeli settlement construction on territories claimed by the Palestinians for their future state. The Palestinians say the settlements, now home to more than 500,000 Israelis, is making it increasingly difficult to carve out their state and that continued Israeli construction is a sign of bad faith.

One senior Palestinian official said Israel's settlement plans were a slap in the face of the Palestinians and Mr Kerry. "It is not just deliberate sabotage of the talks, but really a destruction of the outcome," she said.

The latest construction is to take place in Gilo, an area in east Jerusalem that Israel considers to be a neighbourhood of its capital. Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their capital, is not internationally recognised.

An Interior Ministry spokeswoman confirmed that approval had been given for expanding Gilo.

The housing plan, which received initial approval last year, would expand Gilo's boundaries further toward a Palestinian neighbourhood. The plans for 900 housing units come in addition to an earlier announcement this week of 1,200 other settlement homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

The Palestinians have refused to resume negotiations with Israel unless Israel halted its settlement construction, a demand that Israel has refused.

After six trips to the region, Mr Kerry managed to persuade Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to drop the settlement issue as a condition for negotiations to start.

In exchange, Mr Kerry won Israeli agreement to answer another Palestinian demand and release 104 Palestinian prisoners serving long sentences, many for involvement in killing Israelis. Israel's Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by families who lost loved ones in Palestinian attacks to block the release.

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