International anger over Israeli settlement construction has snowballed in recent days, following last week's U.N. recognition of a state of Palestine
-- in lands Israel occupied in 1967 -- as a non-member observer in the General Assembly.
Israel retaliated for the U.N. recognition of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem by announcing plans to build 3,000 homes in settlements on war-won land, as well as preparations for construction of an especially sensitive project near Jerusalem, known as E-1.
The Israeli reprisal has thrust Israel's strongest Western allies into an unusually harsh showdown with the Jewish state.
On Tuesday, Australia summoned Israel's ambassador in protest, a day after five European countries took such a step
Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, on Tuesday played down the international response, saying Israel isn't happy about it but that "it's not the end of the world."
U.N. recognition could enable the Palestinians to gain access to the International Criminal Court and seek war crimes charges against Israel for its construction of settlements for Jews on war-won land.
Last week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that he's not going to turn to the ICC "unless we were attacked" and that he informed many countries, including the United States, of this position.
However, Abbas spoke before Israel announced its latest settlement plans. The E-1 project, in particular, is seen as a threat to any Israeli-Palestinian partition deal. It would include more than 3,500 homes, cut off east Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank and drive a wedge between the northern and southern West Bank, eroding the possibility of a viable Palestinian state.
Israel has also withheld more than $100 million in tax rebates it collects on behalf of the Palestinians as another punitive measure.
A senior Abbas aide, Nabil Shaath, said late Monday that "by continuing these war crimes of settlement activities on our lands and stealing our money, Israel is pushing and forcing us to go to the ICC."
Shaath' comments marked the most pronounced Palestinian threat yet of turning to the ICC, though officials suggested privately that appealing to the international court is a step of last resort.
Israeli settlement construction lies at the heart of a four-year breakdown in peace talks, and was a major factor behind the Palestinians' U.N. statehood bid. Since 1967, half a million Israelis have settled in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
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Israel withdrew settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005, but continues to restrict access to the territory. It says the fate of settlements should be decided in negotiations and notes that previous rounds of talks continued while construction went on.
Abbas was to meet later Tuesday with senior officials in the Palestine Liberation Organization and his Fatah movement to discuss how to leverage the Palestinians' upgraded status on the world stage.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior PLO official, said the Palestinians were encouraged by the recent diplomatic sanctions against Israel, but that the international community must go further.
Among other steps, she said the European Union should reconsider its association agreement with Israel that grants the Jewish state considerable trade benefits. She said the EU should also take harsher measures against products from Israeli settlements.
"We have to move to concrete steps so Israel knows it has something to lose and will be held accountable, in accordance with international law," Ashrawi said.
Israel, meanwhile, is moving forward with two major construction plans in east Jerusalem, where the Palestinians hope to establish their capital. In the next two weeks, an Interior Ministry planning committee is holding deliberations on these projects, said ministry spokeswoman Efrat Orbach.
One of these projects -- a 1,600-apartment development -- touched off a diplomatic crisis with the U.S. in 2010 when the ministry gave it crucial preliminary approval during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, who was broadsided by the news.
Orbach, said the meetings on the projects -- called Ramot Shlomo and Givat Hamatos
-- were scheduled before the U.N. vote and that it could take months, if not
years, for actual construction to begin.
Press; By AMY TEIBEL and KARIN LAUB]
Laub reported from
Ramallah, West Bank.
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