As the prisoners traveled in convoys to their homes, Israel said it intends to move ahead with the new construction in communities ringing Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority called the initiative “destructive to peace efforts.”
The announcement of more housing units seemed timed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stem criticism of the multistage prisoner release, which is unpopular among most ordinary Israelis and a source of bitter contention in Netanyahu’s ruling government coalition.
About 550,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to the Geneva Initiative, a nongovernmental organization led by former Palestinian and Israel peace negotiators who support a two-state solution. What to do about them represents one of the biggest challenges to any potential peace deal that would grant the Palestinians their own state.
The Palestinians and most of the world describe the settlements as illegal under international law. Palestinians hope to make East Jerusalem their capital, although many Israelis say they cannot imagine dividing the city into two. About 193,000 Jews live in a dozen East Jerusalem settlements, which the Israeli government and the Jerusalem municipality view as neighborhoods that are a part of the city. The Palestinian leadership views East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel, as occupied territory.
Members of Netanyahu’s cabinet attempted Sunday to pass legislation blocking the latest prisoner release. Some members of the prime minister’s own party called the release morally wrong, and some coalition lawmakers said it threatened the coalition.
As part of a deal brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry to get the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table, Netanyahu agreed months ago to free 104 Palestinian prisoners, many of them serving life sentences for killings that took place during the first intifada, or uprising, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The first group of 26 was released in August. The rest are scheduled to be freed over the next six months as long as the closed-door negotiations between the two sides continue.
Netanyahu said he would not freeze settlement construction, as he did once in the past, and he told Kerry that he would continue to allow new homes to be built in Jewish settlements during the peace negotiations, according to U.S. and Israeli officials.
Some Israelis said Wednesday’s announcement was more a political gesture than a real plan to change facts on the ground.
Barak Ravid, diplomatic reporter for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, tweeted: “Netanyahu’s announcement on new building in East Jerusalem is one big spin to calm down right wing. nothing but reheated & recycled noodles.”