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Israel says it will build 1,400 new homes in West Bank - territory claimed by Palestinians

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JERUSALEM - Israel announced plans Friday to build 1,400 new homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territory the Palestinians claim for their future state.

Though it was no surprise, the announcement drew anger from the Palestinians and some within the Israeli government and abroad.

Israel's housing ministry said 800 new houses will be built in the West Bank and 600 in east Jerusalem.

The statement had been expected after Israel released 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in late December, part of a deal made last summer when Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resumed. It was the third of four pledged prisoner releases.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, condemned the announcement, saying it undermines the "American efforts aimed at creating a peace track toward a two-state solution."

The announcement was expected earlier in January but was postponed, apparently to avoid any coinciding with last week's visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. While Israel is not obligated to halt construction under the peace talks, Kerry has urged restraint and said the building raises questions about Israel's commitment.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu previously has issued similar construction announcements to blunt criticism he faces at home over the prisoner releases as many of the Palestinians freed were convicted of killing Israeli civilians and soldiers. Israelis widely resent the release of the prisoners, who they view as terrorists.

"Releasing the prisoners was an immoral step that shouldn't have happened," said Isaac Herzog, chief of the opposition Labor Party. "The housing ministry's announcement at the time of negotiations damages negotiations."

Herzog said Netanyahu should have halted settlement construction rather than release the prisoners, and blamed hard-liners in the prime minister's coalition for the move.

The announcement also drew criticism from within Netanyahu's coalition. Finance Minister Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid Party said his party objects to the announcement and "will do everything so they are not implemented."

Ofir Akunis, a lawmaker from Netanyahu's Likud Party, defended the decision, saying the construction is Israel's "natural and historical right."

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday that the U.S. "consider now and have always considered the settlements to be illegitimate."

"We have called on both sides many, many times to create a positive atmosphere for negotiations," Psaki said. "Obviously, anything that doesn't do that is not helpful."

The Palestinians demand those areas, captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war, for their state. They long had refused to negotiate with Israel while settlement construction continued.

Since the peace talks resumed last summer, Israel has issued 5,500 tenders for new housing in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, said Yariv Oppenheimer of the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now. Oppenheimer called it a significant increase compared to other years.

The fate of the territory is a main focus in peace talks. Netanyahu faces tough opposition to relinquishing territory from critics within his government. Many cite its religious and historic significance for devout Jews, consider it the biblical Jewish heartland or are concerned over security issues.

In New York, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the move. "I am alarmed by this morning's announcement of well over 1,000 settlement units; such activity is not only illegal but also an obstacle to peace," Ban said.

Also Friday, Netanyahu issued a statement condemning vandals who damaged the vehicle of a senior army officer in the West Bank. Israeli media reported his tires were slashed in a "price tag" attack as he was talking with community leaders in Yitzhar about recent violence in the area between Israelis and Palestinians.

That phrase is usually used by a fringe of extremists to describe vandalism committed to protest what they perceive as the Israeli government's pro-Palestinian policies and in retaliation for Palestinian attacks.

Mosques, churches, dovish Israeli groups and even Israeli military bases have been vandalized in "price tag" assaults in recent years. The practice has been widely condemned.

___

Associated Press writers Peter James Spielmann at the United Nations and Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.

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