JERUSALEM – Israel said Sunday it has approved hundreds of settler homes after five members of an Israeli family -- including three children -- were knifed to death as they slept in a West Bank settlement over the weekend.
The attack and the government's response threatened to drive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking even further out of reach. Israel, which blames the attack on Palestinian militants, is liable to set aside an emerging peace initiative it had planned to propose, while the planned construction of new settler homes only deepened Palestinian mistrust of Israel.
The settlement construction, approved Saturday night by the Cabinet's ministerial team on settlements, would take place in major West Bank settlement blocs that Israel expects to hold on to in any final peace deal, the prime minister's office said in a text message to reporters. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is under domestic pressure to respond harshly to the killings, is a member of that team.
A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release this information to the media, said between 300 and 500 apartments and homes were approved for construction.
Palestinian opposition to settlement construction on lands they want for a future state has brought negotiations to a virtual standstill over the past two years, with Palestinians refusing to negotiate directly with Israel as long as it persists.
"We condemn this act of accelerated settlement construction," senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said. "We urge the international community to intervene and implement the two-state solution. This is the only way out of this vicious circle of violence and counter-violence."
Settler leader Dani Dayan called the government's move "a very small step in the right direction."
Although ground has been broken on as many as 500 apartments and homes since an Israeli moratorium on new West Bank settlement construction expired in late September, the government is holding up approvals on hundreds of other homes, to the settlers' chagrin.
The attack Friday night in Itamar, home to some of Israel's most radical settlers, was the deadliest against Israelis in years, and security forces were on alert Sunday for possible settler retaliation against Palestinians. The general security level around the country was raised, with an emphasis on the West Bank and Jerusalem, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
The military said suspects had been taken into custody in connection with the killings but would give no details. Troops were searching the area around the settlement looking for the assailants and were beefed up in the area near the Jerusalem cemetery where the victims were to be buried later Sunday, the military said.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a mostly defunct Palestinian militant group, took responsibility for the killings. But it was not clear if the group really was responsible because it frequently takes credit for attacks it didn't commit in a bid to raise its profile.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the killings and Palestinian security forces were also searching for the perpetrators, Palestinian officials said. But in Gaza, ruled by Islamic Hamas militants, officials applauded the attack and residents celebrated the killings.
At the start of Sunday's weekly Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said he told Abbas that the Palestinian Authority must make "unequivocal efforts to stop allowing incitement" against Israelis.
Developments on the diplomatic front could depend in part on whether the violence spreads.
U.S.-backed peace talks between the two sides collapsed last year amid disputes over continued Israeli construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territory Palestinians envision as part of their future state.
Netanyahu had been expected to deliver a major policy speech soon, possibly proposing a Palestinian state within temporary borders as a way out of a longstanding negotiations impasse.
Such a proposal is anathema to the Palestinians, who fear the temporary arrangement will become permanently entrenched.
With peacemaking at a standstill, the Palestinians are pushing for world recognition of an independent state -- with or without a deal. Although that would not deliver them an actual state, it could isolate Israel.
The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv had no reaction to the settlement construction approval. But the Israeli government official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the U.S. was aware of the Israeli decision.