Nations slam UNESCO-linked Israel settlements
Israel's top ally Washington on Wednesday led international calls for the Jewish state to abandon its decision to speed up settlement building in occupied territory in retaliation for Palestinian admission to UN's cultural organisation.
"We are deeply disappointed by yesterday's announcement about accelerated housing construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
"As we have said before, unilateral actions work against efforts to resume direction negotiations and they do not advance the goal of a reasonable and necessary agreement between the parties.
"So any action, as we have said all along, that either side takes that makes it harder rather than easier for the two parties to come together in direct negotiations is something that we oppose."
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was "deeply concerned" by Israel's decision and "worried at the trajectory of developments" between Israel and the Palestinians and called on both to "refrain from provocations," said his spokesman Martin Nesirky.
"The secretary general calls on the government of Israel to freeze all settlement activity and to continue to transfer VAT and customs revenues that belong to the Palestinian Authority and are essential to enable it to function, in line with Israel's obligations," the spokesman said.
European countries also expressed their concerns at Israel's decision.
"I am deeply concerned by the latest Israeli decisions to expedite settlement activities in response to Palestinian accession to UNESCO," European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement.
"Israeli settlement activity is illegal under international law including in East Jerusalem and an obstacle to peace," she said, calling on Israel to reverse its decision.
French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told journalists that "France condemns the decision to accelerate the construction of several thousand homes in settlements in east Jerusalem and surroundings."
Israel also decided to freeze the transfer of customs duties levied on goods destined for Palestinian markets that transit through Israeli ports, which constitute a large percentage of the Palestinian budget.
Such a move "would be counter to Israel's international undertakings and its legal obligations," Valero said. "It would also threaten the progress made by the Palestinian Authority in building up Palestinian institutions on the ground."
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "We need to see steps towards peace, not actions that divide and isolate the parties further and undermine the prospects for negotiations.
"We call on Israel to reverse both these decisions, and on both sides to show the courage and leadership necessary to achieve a return to negotiations."
The settlement announcement "is a serious blow to the Quartet's efforts to restart peace negotiations", Hague said in a statement, adding that it was illegal under international law. "I condemn the decision to accelerate such construction."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said Berlin was calling on Israel to stop all settlement building activity and that those that take unilateral action such as this "risk causing a further escalation of the conflict," he added.
The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement: "We insistently urge the Israeli government to refrain from any unilateral actions that prejudge the result of the talks process on questions of the final status of the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem."
It said that Russia found it "impossible to agree with decisions on collective punishment of Palestinians for their intention to enter the United Nations and its specialised organisations."
Italian foreign ministry spokesman Maurizio Massari said Rome was extremely concerned at the Israeli moves, which would not help in creating confidence between the two sides.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was defiant Wednesday, telling members of parliament: "We build in Jerusalem because it is our right and our obligation; not as punishment but as a basic right of our people to build its eternal capital."
His inner cabinet decided Tuesday to accelerate construction of Jewish settlements in annexed Arab east Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank, a day after the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation accepted Palestine as a full member.
Israel claims all Jerusalem as its "eternal, indivisible capital", including the eastern sector which it captured and annexed in 1967 in a move never recognised by the international community.
The Palestinians demand east Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state.
The United States also stopped its funding to UNESCO, amounting to nearly a quarter of the body's revenue, after the admission of the Palestinians.
© 2011 AFP