Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has sanctioned dozens of construction projects in Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank during recent months, local daily Ha'aretz reported Friday.
Some of the permits were granted to settlements east of the separation fence, which are beyond the areas Israel defines as " settlement blocks" and expects to retain under its control in a peace agreement with the Palestinians, according to the report.
These approvals by the defense minister, who ordered in January that all construction projects in the West Bank be brought to him for authorization, came despite Israel's commitment to the Road Map, a U.S.-proposed plan that serves as the platform of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and requires Israel to cease settlement expansion.
Since Israeli and Palestinian leaders resumed the peace process last November, settlement has been one of the key issues dividing the two neighbors. Palestinian officials have long been accusing the continued settlement expansion of depressing the already sluggish process.
The continued expansion of West Bank settlements also drew strong criticism from the international community, including Israel's staunch ally the United States. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice repeatedly called for a halt of settlement activities, and stressed that such construction contravenes the Road Map and erodes mutual confidence.