Construction starts in Jewish-only settlements on occupied Palestinian land rose by a "drastic" 70 percent year-on-year in the first half of 2013, an Israeli NGO said Thursday.
According to figures released by the anti-settlement group Peace Now, between January and June construction started on 1,708 new homes in the West Bank, including annexed East Jerusalem, compared with 995 in the first half of 2012.
Billing the figures as a "drastic rise," Peace Now said only a third of the construction had taken place on the Israeli side of the vast separation barrier that cuts through the West Bank.
And 86 percent of the new construction was carried out in areas where tenders were not required, it said, meaning that building activity did not technically flout the quiet freeze on tenders Israel reportedly agreed to this year as Washington pushed for a resumption of direct peace talks.
In May, several press reports said Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had ordered a freeze on tenders for new settler homes. Although it was never officially confirmed, statistics released at the time by Peace Now showed there had been no new tenders issued since the start of the year.
But the occupation watchdog said the figures showed the tender freeze was largely cosmetic.
"This means the 'tender moratorium' declared by the government ... was not a general construction freeze but only of a small part of the construction in settlements," the watchdog said.
US-sponsored direct peace talks resumed in late July after a hiatus of nearly three years, although both sides have kept a tight lid on the substance under discussion at the request of Washington.
"The fact that there is talk about a freeze on tenders doesn't dramatically change the situation on the ground," Peace Now's Hagit Ofran told AFP.
'They are building as usual'
"The tendency of Netanyahu's government has been to build more in isolated settlements deep in the West Bank where tenders are not needed, compared with the previous government which built more in settlements closer to the Green Line," Ofran said.
Settlement building in the territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War is considered illegal under international law, and the issue remains one of the most divisive in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Fortunately the Palestinians did not leave the talks because of the continued construction in settlements, but there is a chance that if this policy continues, then it will be very, very hard to hold on to the talks," Ofran said.
The Palestinians said that settlement building threatened the future of the fledgling peace talks.
"Israel's continued settlement building is destroying the peace process," top negotiator Saeb Erekat told AFP, holding "the Israeli government fully responsible for this situation and its outcome."
Meanwhile, Netanyahu's adviser on settlement issues is pushing forward a plan that would remove the need to invite bids for urban settlements in an effort to minimise the diplomatic pressure that results from a public tendering process, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported.
In rural settlements, there is no requirement for competitive tenders, because the land is allocated through the World Zionist Organisation, which hands it to an NGO involved in settlement that then privately selects residents.
By contrast, in urban settlements, the Israel Lands Administration must publish invitations to tender for all plots, which often triggers diplomatic protests, the paper said.
The new plan, which is currently being studied by the cabinet secretary, would change the status of settlement blocs from urban to rural, meaning the land could be allocated without the need for a public tender process.
The prime minister's office refused comment on the report.