By Joel Greenberg
Monday, March 14, 2011; 1:57 AM
JERUSALEM - The Israeli government said Sunday that it had approved the construction of hundreds of new homes in West Bank settlements after a couple and three of their children were stabbed to death in their home in a Jewish settlement Friday night.
The brutality of the attack at Itamar, a community of fervent religious nationalists near the Palestinian city of Nablus, shocked Israelis and triggered retaliation by militant settlers who stoned Palestinian cars and homes and torched vehicles in several locations across the West Bank.
In a response to the slayings, the office of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said a group of senior ministers had approved "measured construction" of up to 500 housing units in several large Israeli settlements in the West Bank: Maa'leh Adumim, Ariel, the Etzion settlement bloc and Kiryat Sefer.
"They murder and we build, and we will build our country," Netanyahu told relatives of the victims after a funeral that was broadcast live on national radio and television.
A self-imposed Israeli moratorium on new building in West Bank settlements expired in late September. Since then, there has been a spurt of settlement construction involving previously approved homes, but the decision announced Sunday was the first approval of new building plans.
Palestinian officials condemned the Israeli move. The Palestinians have refused to resume suspended negotiations with Israel as long as it continues expanding settlements, asserting that the construction is swallowing up land they seek for a future state.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said the decision to build had been taken with "full transparency with the Americans," suggesting that Washington had been notified. Regev emphasized that the new construction would be in large settlements that he said were expected to remain part of Israel in any future peace accord and that the Israeli government saw "no contradiction'' between the plan and an eventual agreement on a Palestinian state.
In Washington, the State Department said it was "deeply concerned'' by the continuing Israeli actions on West Bank settlements. Mark Toner, the department spokesman, called the continued Israeli settlements "illegitimate'' and said they "run counter to efforts to resume direct negotiations'' between Israelis and Palestinians.
At the funeral, where the victims were eulogized as martyrs to the cause of settling the biblical Jewish homeland, officials and settler leaders said the appropriate response should be further expansion of the settlements.
"We must continue building while holding the sword," said Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon.
Those killed were Ruth and Ehud Fogel and three of their children - Yoav, 11, Elad, 4, and Hadas, a 3-month-old - all slain in their beds on the Jewish Sabbath.
Speaking before the Israeli government's weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu linked the deadly attack to what he called anti-Israeli incitement in Palestinian media, schools and mosques. He said he had urged Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who called to express his condolences, to take "unequivocal action" to halt it.
Commentary in Palestinian newspapers Sunday denounced the attack. An editorial in the daily al-Quds said, "We are against killing children, Jewish or Palestinian, and we condemn such acts." Hafez Barghouti, editor of the government-controlled al-Hayat al-Jadida newspaper, wrote: "Stabbing sleeping children is not a heroic act. It requires a dead heart."
Greenberg is a special correspondent.