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Palestinian president returns triumphantly from UN

By Dalia Nammari

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Dec. 2 2012 6:03 p.m. MST

"The European Union has repeatedly stated that all settlement construction is illegal under international law and constitutes an obstacle to peace," Ashton said in a statement.

On Sunday, the Israeli government delivered another blow, saying it would withhold more than $100 million in funds it transfers to the Palestinians each month.

Instead, it said the money — taxes and customs duties that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians — would be used to pay off its debts to Israeli companies, including $200 million owed to the state-run Israel Electric Corp., government officials said.

The monthly transfers are crucial for the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority to pay salaries to its tens of thousands of civil servants and security forces. Israel has taken similar measures in the past before eventually releasing the money.

At the weekly meeting of his Cabinet, Netanyahu said the Palestinian statehood campaign was a "gross violation" of past agreements calling for disputes to be resolved through negotiations.

"Accordingly, the government of Israel rejects the U.N General Assembly decision," he told his Cabinet on Sunday. He also pledged to continue building settlements.

"Today we are building, and we will continue to build in Jerusalem and in all areas that appear on Israel's map of strategic interests."

Half a million settlers live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The ongoing growth of the settlements is at the heart of the current impasse in peace efforts.

The Palestinians view continued settlement expansion as a show of bad faith and refuse to return to negotiations unless construction is frozen.

Netanyahu has claimed a brief settlement slowdown in 2010 failed to jump-start negotiations, and he has refused calls for a new construction freeze.

The Palestinians have signaled that they may use their upgraded status to join the International Criminal Court and pursue war crimes charges against Israel. But officials say any decision to seek membership in the ICC is likely months away.

Palestinian officials said little was expected to change until Israel holds parliamentary elections on Jan. 22. Public opinion polls suggest Netanyahu is likely to win re-election at the head of a hardline coalition.

Palestinian officials said they were hopeful that Obama would present a comprehensive peace plan after the Israeli vote.

"If there is a meaningful peace process, we will join. If not, then we are taking the Palestinian cause to the international community," said Husam Zomlot, a spokesman for Abbas.

The new Israeli settlement construction plans remain far from certain and may have been announced by Netanyahu to impress voters ahead of the election.

New figures from Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics show that Netanyahu has actually slowed settlement construction over the past year. The latest figures found that Israel began construction on 653 new settlement homes in the first nine months of 2012, down 26 percent from 886 housing starts during the same period a year earlier.

Israel insists that the Palestinians are responsible for the deadlock, accusing them of refusing to recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland and the Palestinian media of glorifying violence and promoting anti-Semitic caricatures.

Netanyahu said Abbas' speech at the U.N., in which he accused Israel of "ethnic cleansing" and omitted any reference of the Jewish connection to the holy land, was filled with incitement and hate.

"This is additional proof that this is not a dispute over land but a denial of the existence of the State of Israel," he said. "As long as the Palestinian Authority educates the younger generation to hate, how is it at all possible to talk about peace?"

Heller reported from Jerusalem. Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed to this report from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.

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