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Netanyahu steps up settlement construction after UNESCO vote

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JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday ordered accelerated construction of 2,000 homes in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and nearby West Bank settlements, his office said, a day after the Palestinians gained membership in a major U.N. agency.

Netanyahu’s move, along with a hold on the transfer of taxes collected by Israel for the Palestinian Authority, were described by Israeli officials as initial responses to Palestinian moves to gain recognition of statehood at the United Nations. The decision drew a sharp response from the United States on Wednesday, with White House spokesman Jay Carney saying the Obama administration was “deeply disappointed” by it.

UNESCO voted Monday to admit Palestine, after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas applied for full U.N. membership in September.

The United States announced that it would cut its funding to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in response to the vote Monday, saying it undermined the goal of a negotiated peace agreement that would bring about a Palestinian state. Israel said it would review further cooperation with the agency.

The announcement of accelerated construction on contested land and suspension of fund transfers came after a meeting of Netanyahu’s inner cabinet to consider responses to the UNESCO vote.

An Israeli official said Netanyahu had ordered that bids be expedited for construction of 1,650 homes in Jewish neighborhoods built on West Bank land annexed to Jerusalem after the 1967 Middle East war, including in Har Homa, a development near Bethlehem.

The rest of the homes would be built in the West Bank settlement towns of Ma’aleh Adumim and Efrat near Jerusalem, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The statement from Netanyahu’s office said that the new construction would be in areas that “will under any future agreement remain part of Israel.” Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and they say that Israeli building activity there is destroying prospects for a two-state solution to the conflict.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Abbas, said that Netanyahu’s decision to speed up construction on land Palestinians want for a state “means that he’s speeding up the destruction of the peace process.”

Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestinian government in the West Bank, called the Israeli step “another stick in the wheels of international efforts to resume the peace process,” adding that “it will further poison the atmosphere.”

“The Palestinians are seeking recognition,” Khatib said, “and it is completely unacceptable for Israel to respond to a peaceful and legal move with a completely illegal response, which is the expansion of settlements.”

The Israeli official said the transfer of taxes and import duties collected by Israel for the Palestinian Authority would be put on hold, pending a decision on whether to halt the transfers.

The funds make up more than half of the domestic revenue of the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority, which has been squeezed in recent months by a reduction in contributions from donor nations, particularly Arab states. An infusion of Arab funds has helped pay salaries of government workers in the past two months.

Carney, the White House spokesman, said Wednesday that unilateral actions undermine efforts to resume talks.

“Any action 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, and that would be the case here,” he said.

The United States is opposed to the Palestinians’ bid for membership in U.N. bodies but also opposes Israel’s ongoing settlement building.

Palestinian officials are considering seeking admission to other U.N. agencies after their success at UNESCO, moves that Israel and the United States have described as unilateral steps that undermine the resumption of direct negotiations.

Attempts by the Quartet of Middle East mediators to revive the talks have faltered, with the Palestinians asserting that they will not resume negotiations unless Israel halts settlement construction and accepts the 1967 lines as the basis for a future peace agreement. Israel has called for talks without preconditions.

Also Tuesday, the main phone network in the West Bank and Gaza Strip came under “multiple attacks” by computer hackers that slowed or disrupted Internet services in the Palestinian territories, Khatib said. He added that the attacks had originated in “many countries” and that he could not say whether they were linked to the UNESCO vote.

Mashhour Abu Daqqa, the Palestinian telecommunications minister, told the Reuters news service that “all Palestinian IP addresses have been exposed to a focused, organized attack from abroad.”

“I think this is organized by a state,” he added.

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