Construction starts in Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land have risen by a “drastic” 70 per cent year-on-year in the first half of 2013, an Israeli non-government organisation says.
According to figures released by the anti-settlement group Peace Now, between January and June construction starts were made on 1708 new homes in the West Bank, including annexed east Jerusalem, compared with 995 in the first half of 2012.
Billing the figures as a "drastic rise", Peace Now said on Thursday only a third of the construction had taken place on the Israeli side of the vast separation barrier which cuts through the West Bank.
And 86 per cent of the new construction was carried out in areas where tenders were not required, it said, meaning that building activity 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 prisoner release in (August) 2013 was not a general construction freeze, but only of a small part of the construction in settlements," the watchdog said, referring to the government's release of 26 long-term Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture.
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.
"The fact that there is talk about a freeze on tenders doesn't dramatically change the situation on the ground," said Peace Now's Hagit Ofran.
"They are building as usual.
"The tendency of (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu's government has been to build more in isolated settlements deep in the West Bank where tenders are not needed, compared with the previous government which built more in settlements closer to the Green Line," she said.
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 divisive issues in 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," said top negotiator Saeb Erakat, holding "the Israeli government fully responsible for this situation and its outcome."