JERUSALEM: New settlement construction starts rose by 70 percent in the first half of 2013 compared with a year earlier, an Israeli NGO said Thursday, describing the increase as "drastic".
According to figures released by the anti-settler group Peace Now, the construction of 1,708 new homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem began between January and June 2013, compared with 995 in the same period last year.
Billing the figures as a "drastic rise," Peace Now said 44 percent of the new construction had taken place east of Israel's vast separation barrier, which cuts through the West Bank, and 32 percent fell to the east of it.
And 86 percent of the new construction was carried out in areas where tenders were not required, it said.
Meaning it did not technically flout the quiet freeze on tenders Israel reportedly agreed to this year as Washington pushed for a resumption of direct peace talks.
"This means the 'tender moratorium' declared by the government until the prisoners release in July 2013 was not a general construction freeze."
"But only of a small part of the construction in settlements," the watchdog said.
US-sponsored direct peace talks resumed in late July after a hiatus of nearly three years.
Although both sides have kept a tight lid on the substance under discussion at the request of Washington.
Settlement building in the territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War is considered illegal under international law.
And the issue remains one of the most bitter points of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Fortunately the Palestinians did not leave the talks because of the continued construction in settlements."
"But there is a chance that if this policy continues, then it will be very very hard to hold on to the talks," Ofran said.
The Palestinians said that settlement building threatened the future of the fledgling peace talks.
"Israel's continued settlement building is destroying the peace process," top negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP, holding "the Israeli government fully responsible for this situation and its outcome." (AFP)