Updated Saturday, December 1, 2012 at 12:16 AM
JERUSALEM — Israel is moving forward with development of Jewish settlements in a contentious area east of Jerusalem, defying the United States by advancing a project that has long been condemned by international leaders as dooming any prospect of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
One day after the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to upgrade the Palestinians' status, a senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the government would pursue "preliminary zoning and planning preparations" for a development that would separate the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem from Jerusalem, preventing the possibility of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state.
The development, in an open area known as E-1, would connect the large settlement town of Maaleh Adumim to Jerusalem. Israel also authorized the construction of 3,000 housing units in parts of east Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The timing of the twin actions seemed aimed at punishing the Palestinians for their U.N. bid.
"This is a new act of defiance from the Israeli government," said Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians' chief negotiator. "At a moment where the Palestinian leadership is doing every single effort to save the two-state solution, the Israeli government does everything possible to destroy it."
Much of the world considers settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank to be illegal under international law, and the United States has vigorously opposed development of E-1 for nearly two decades.
On Friday, Tommy Vietor, an Obama administration spokesman, condemned the move, citing the U.S. "longstanding opposition to settlements and east Jerusalem construction and announcements."
The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to comment on the zoning and construction decisions, which were made Thursday night around the time of the General Assembly vote.
Israel has long maintained its right to develop neighborhoods throughout east Jerusalem and the West Bank — more than 500,000 Jews already live there.
Erekat's spokesman declined to discuss whether the Palestinians would use their upgraded status, as a nonmember observer state with access to U.N. institutions, to pursue a case in International Criminal Court regarding E-1 or the other settlement expansion.
Less contentious moves were already in progress: The Palestinian Authority has begun changing its name to "Palestine" on official documents, contracts and websites, and several nations are considering raising the level of diplomatic relations, giving Palestinian envoys the title of ambassador.
All but one European country voted with the Palestinians or abstained in Thursday's U.N. vote, many of them citing concerns about settlements in West Bank and east Jerusalem territories Israel captured in the 1967 war.
ODED BALILTY / AP
This March 2011 photo offers a general view of a construction site in a West Bank Jewish settlement.