JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel began building more than twice as many West Bank settlement homes in 2013 than it did the previous year, Israel's central bureau of statistics said Monday, just hours before its prime minster was to face President Barack Obama in Washington for what was expected to be a tense meeting.
In Gaza, meanwhile, Israel launched an airstrike that killed a Palestinian militant, officials and his family said.
The two leaders have been at odds over Israel's settlement policies on war-won land, and the announcement looked to complicate matters weeks before an initial April target date for reaching the outline of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
In its annual roundup of the Israeli housing market, the bureau said work began on 2,534 new housing units in the settlements in 2013, compared to 1,133 in 2012. Nationally, Israel had a 3.4 percent increase in housing starts over the same period.
The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip — territories captured by Israel in 1967 — for an independent state. The Palestinians consider settlements build beyond the pre-1967 lines to be illegal and an obstacle to peace. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to recognize these lines as a starting point, saying final borders should be agreed in negotiations.
Palestinian official Nabil Shaath condemned the construction, saying the "settlement activities have made negotiations worthless." He said the surge had angered Palestinians and called for a "complete cessation of settlement construction."
More than 550,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. The Palestinians, along with the international community, consider settlements illegal or illegitimate. European and American leaders have warned Israel recently that settlements are causing increased isolation for Israel.
In a published interview, Obama said he would personally appeal for Netanyahu to move forward on peace talks with the Palestinians.