JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel on Friday published tenders to build 450 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank, a watchdog said, in a plan denounced by the Palestinians as a "war crime".
Settlement watchdog Peace Now tied the move to Israel's March 17 general election in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud is competing with other rightwing parties for the settler vote.
"It is a pre-election grab to establish facts on the ground made by the Netanyahu government," Peace Now said in a statement.
It said the inevitable US condemnation would add to strains over Netanyahu's acceptance of a controversial invitation to address Congress on Iran that has sparked a bitter row with the White House.
"After embarrassing the Obama administration with the invitation to the congress, Netanyahu adds another slap in the face of the Americans, and shows no respect to Israel's closest ally," it said.
Daniel Seidemann, head of the Terrestrial Jerusalem group which also monitors settlement, said the latest plans were the first of their kind to be announced in several months and unlikely to be the last before the next month's polls.
"It's the opening of the settlement floodgates," he told AFP.
"This could hardly be an accident," he said. "It could not have taken place without Netanyahu's knowledge and consent."
Peace Now said the new homes were to be built in four existing settlements across the West Bank - 114 in Adam, 156 in Elkana, 78 in Alfei Menashe and 102 in Kiryat Arba.
Seidemann, who had earlier spoken of 430 new settler homes, said the numbers given by Peace Now figure were correct.
Palestine Liberation Organisation official Wassel Abu Yusef slammed the project.
"What the Israelis announced is part of a wider war... against the Palestinian people," Abu Yusef told AFP. "This is a war crime which should push the settlements issue to the International Criminal Court."
EAST JERUSALEM NEXT?
Seidemann, whose group particularly monitors settlement in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, predicted that building plans there were likely to be announced soon.
"Netanyahu has a tendency, especially when he's having trouble in the polls, to do something outrageous in Jerusalem," he said.
He pointed to Givat Hamatos, where Peace Now revealed on October 1 that final approval had been granted for the construction of 2,610 settler homes.
"I don't think it's over," he said. "I would be very concerned and keep a close eye on things like Givat Hamatos." A poll published Friday in the Jerusalem Post showed Likud rallying, after weeks of lagging behind the Zionist Union alliance of Labour and the centrist HaTnuah party of former justice minister Tzipi Livni.
The Post linked the surge to a Hezbollah missile strike on Wednesday which killed two Israeli soldiers, at the time the survey was being conducted by the Panels Research organisation.
It gave Likud a projected 25 places in the 120-seat parliament, just ahead of the Zionist Union's 24.
"Last week the Zionist Union was ahead of the Likud by two seats and two weeks ago the lead was three," the Post wrote.
But in a contradictory finding not unusual in Israeli polls it said that 52 percent of respondents did not want Netanyahu to remain premier.
The poll of 514 respondents had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
Israel occupied the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day war. Building settlements there is illegal under international law and opposed by the United States and the international community as an obstacle to an eventual peace deal with the Palestinians.