Jerusalem - Just hours after releasing 26 more Palestinian prisoners as part of the ongoing peace process, Israel announced Wednesday that it will pursue a new round of construction in areas of East Jerusalem claimed by the Palestinians for their future state.
The freed inmates, denounced as murderers by many Israelis, were greeted as heroes by families, friends and officials in subdued celebrations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip early Wednesday.
As the prisoners traveled in convoys to their homes, Israel said it intends to move ahead with the controversial new construction in communities ringing Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority called the initiative "destructive to peace efforts."
The announcement of more housing units seemed timed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stem criticism of the multi-stage prisoner release, which is unpopular among most ordinary Israelis and a source of bitter contention in Netanyahu's own ruling government coalition.
About 550,000 Jewish settlers now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to the Geneva Initiative, a nongovernmental organization led by former Palestinian and Israel peace negotiators who support a two-state solution. What to do about them represents one of the biggest challenges to any potential peace deal that would grant the Palestinians their own state.
The Palestinians and most of the world describe the settlements as illegal under international law. Palestinians hope to make East Jerusalem their capital, although many Israelis say they cannot imagine dividing the city into two. About 193,000 Jews live in a dozen East Jerusalem settlements, which the Israeli government and the Jerusalem municipality view as neighborhoods that are a part of the city. The Palestinian leadership views East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel, as occupied territory.
Members of Netanyahu's Cabinet attempted Sunday to pass legislation blocking the latest prisoner release. Some members of the prime minister's own party called the release morally wrong, and some coalition lawmakers said it threatened the coalition.
As part of a deal brokered by Secretary of State John F. Kerry to get the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table, Netanyahu agreed months ago to free 104 Palestinian prisoners, many of them serving life sentences for killings that took place during the first intifada, or uprising, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The first group of 26 was released in August. The rest are scheduled to be freed over the next six months as long as the secret negotiations between the two sides continue.
Netanyahu said he would not freeze settlement construction, as he did once in the past, and he told Kerry that he would continue to allow new homes to be built in Jewish settlements during the peace negotiations, according to U.S. and Israeli officials.
Some Israelis said Wednesday's announcement was more a political gesture than a real plan to change facts on the ground.
Barak Ravid, diplomatic reporter for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, tweeted: "Netanyahu's announcement on new building in East Jerusalem is one big spin to calm down right wing. nothing but reheated & recycled noodles."
The announcement put back on track an existing plan to build 1,500 new housing units in the East Jerusalem community of Ramat Shlomo, already home to about 15,000 mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews.
According to Israeli media, those same housing starts were previously announced during a visit to Israel by Vice President Biden in 2010, causing embarrassment to the White House and chilling relations between President Obama and Netanyahu. The plan was suspended but then reactivated after the United Nations granted the Palestinians nonmember observer status last year.
"This is classic Netanyahu," said Hagit Ofran, a leader of the Israeli group Settlement Watch, which monitors building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. "He does something that supports the peace process and then he turns around and does something to retaliate against the Palestinians."
In addition to the new units approved for Ramat Shlomo, the Israeli government said it will develop a tourism center at the archaeological site of the City of David, located next to an Arab neighborhood abutting Jerusalem's Old City. Another project would create a national park atop Jerusalem's Mount Scopus, near Hebrew University, that would limit expansion of two nearby Palestinian neighborhoods.
Palestinian officials pivoted Wednesday from welcoming the released prisoners home to denouncing the announcement of more construction.
"We are worried and concerned that if Israel continues with the expansion of settlements, this might kill the two states vision which we would like to see on this land," said Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.
"This is not the first time they've done this. It is part of a pattern," said Ashraf B. Khatib, an adviser to the negotiating team from the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Dani Dayan, a leader of the umbrella group that represents the municipal councils of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, said his organization also opposes Netanyahu's strategy of releasing prisoners and then announcing more settlements.
"By linking the two, it brings shame on the settlement enterprise," he said.