JERUSALEM — Israel has approved construction of new housing for Jewish settlers in the West Bank, officials said Tuesday, drawing protests from Palestinian leaders and Israeli peace activists who said the decision violated a 3-year-old pledge to the United States to freeze settlement activity.
Israeli officials insisted that there was no such breach, saying the site of the new homes for 100 families in the northern Jordan Valley had been a Jewish settlement since 1981. But Palestinian leaders said the announcement, coming just three days after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas launched an effort to revive peace talks, undermined the cooperative spirit of the weekend meeting.
Saeb Erekat, an aide to Abbas who attended the meeting, said the plans for new West Bank housing were a breach of the 2003 U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.
Under that accord, Israel agreed to freeze settlement expansion while the Palestinians promised to crack down on militants. The accord broke down as neither side followed through.
"This is certain to destroy the atmosphere created after the meeting," Erekat said. "What message are the Israelis trying to send? Israel must choose between peace and settlements, because there is no peace with settlements."
Hopes of advancing the peace effort faded further late Tuesday when Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip launched seven rockets into Israel, wounding two 14-year-old boys who were running toward a bomb shelter in Sderot.
One of the boys was hospitalized in critical condition. They were the first Israeli casualties from 63 rockets fired by Palestinians in violation of a month-old cease-fire in the coastal territory, Israeli officials said.
Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant group, claimed that its forces had fired the rockets and said it was striking back for Israel's continued military raids on its West Bank hide-outs.
Olmert convened a meeting of his top security advisors today to debate Israel's policy of restraint. Defense Minister Amir Peretz was pressing for a resumption of retaliatory strikes, his aides said.
Saturday's two-hour summit, the first formal meeting between Olmert and Abbas, had been called in an effort to build on the cease-fire. Olmert made several concessions to the Palestinians, promising to release $100 million in frozen taxes and duties that Israel had collected for them and to ease West Bank travel restrictions.
On Sunday, Olmert indicated that he might free some Palestinian prisoners in the coming days, softening his opposition to such a move. And Israeli officials said he was making plans to meet next week with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose government has been mediating between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down six years ago. In trying to revive them, the two leaders have yet to address substantive issues of the 6-decade-old conflict. But Olmert has indicated that he is willing to make territorial concessions, while insisting that Israel retain large settlement blocks in the West Bank.
The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War, as part of a future independent state.
Olmert and Abbas agreed in Saturday's meeting to refrain from unilateral actions that could complicate a final peace accord.
The U.S. implicitly criticized Israel's settlement plan.
"The U.S. view on settlements remains unchanged," said Geoff Anisman, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. "The U.S. continues to urge both sides to meet their road map obligations and to avoid taking steps that could be viewed as predetermining the outcome of final-status negotiations."
The settlement plan was first reported by Dubi Tal, an Israeli official who heads the Jordan Valley regional council, and confirmed by the Defense Ministry, which gave the final go-ahead last week.
Tal said the settlement, Maskiot, would initially house 23 Jewish settler families who were among those evacuated when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip last year, and would eventually house 100 families. He said foundations for temporary housing would be laid within three weeks.
Peace Now, an Israeli group that lobbies against settlements, said this was the first new one approved by Israel in the West Bank since 1992.
But government spokeswoman Miri Eisen said the settlement was not a new one. She said the new housing did not violate Israeli commitments because Maskiot had been a legally established Israeli settlement since 1981. The site was home to an army unit of ultra-Orthodox Jewish infantry soldiers until 2001 and then housed a preparatory school for 20 Orthodox men, which is closing.
Yariv Oppenheimer, director general of Peace Now, disagreed. "They're effectively establishing a new community," he said. "It's a violation of the road map accord."
Oppenheimer said his group would seek to have the decision overturned.