Israel has officially approved the construction of more than 450 new homes in the occupied West Bank, the Israeli defence ministry has announced.
This is the first new government-approved construction project in the West Bank since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to power in March.
It comes despite US pressure to halt settlement building.
A senior Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said the move “nullified” the effect of any future building freeze.
Palestinians have ruled out resumption of peace talks with Israel until there is a complete halt to settlement construction.
Mr Erekat said Israel’s decision further undermined its credibility as a partner for peace.
WEST BANK SETTLEMENTS
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 Modiin Illit, where 38,000 people live
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% since 2001
Source: Peace Now
“Israel’s decision to approve the construction nullifies any effect that a settlement freeze, when and if announced, will have,” Mr Erekat said.
“Given the choice between making peace and making settlements, they have chosen to make settlements,” he added.
“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 that 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.
It says the settlements include Har Gilo, Modiin Illit and Ariel.
Last week, Israeli officials announced that Mr Netanyahu would 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.
BBC Jerusalem correspondent Tim Franks says there is little doubt that the government of Benjamin Netanyahu is feeling pressure from the settlers – who dismissed this latest approval to build as insultingly limited.
But today’s announcement can only complicate a possible resumption of meaningful peace talks with the Palestinians.
“What Netanyahu is doing is clearly at the scale of a grand deception,” said Fatah spokesperson Hanan Ashrawi.
“He thinks that he can deceive the rest of the world… but what he is doing under a variety of pretexts is the continuation of settlements and at the same time demanding a price in return.”
The Americans, who are trying to broker new peace negotiations, have already expressed their displeasure, our correspondent says.
They say they are trying to build credibility across the Middle East in a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The question for the US special envoy is whether he will, in the end, accept the Israeli version of a settlement freeze.
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.
Some 2,500 housing units are currently under construction.
The settlements are illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.
spotted by RS