JERUSALEM, Jan. 20 (JTA) — Israel has approved the construction of 60 new housing units in a Jewish settlement in the Jordan Valley. The move, which sparked criticism from Palestinian officials, came only days after Israel turned over most of the West Bank town of Hebron to self-rule. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday defended his government’s approval of the private construction project in Ma’aleh Ephraim. He added that Israel planned to continue expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank. “I do not think that the Oslo agreements or the latest agreement [regarding Hebron] rule out continuation of construction,” he said. “We’ve always said this. There is no change.” The Israeli government’s earlier decision to lift a freeze on building in existing Jewish settlements has drawn criticism from Arab countries as well as from the United States. In Hebron meanwhile, Israeli and Palestinian security forces increased their number of joint patrols on Monday from two to four. The two sides were expected to add more joint patrols in the coming days. In a related development, Israeli officials charged that a large number of stolen Israeli weapons had fallen into the hands of the Palestinian police. Netanyahu said Monday that a number of stolen Israel Defense Force rifles had been confiscated from the Palestinian police, but he did not say whether the rifles had been returned to Israel. On Sunday, Israel suspended the distribution of rifles to Palestinian police in Hebron after discovering that some Palestinian security officers had Galil rifles, an Israeli assault weapon. An IDF source was quoted as saying that the weapons had been confiscated by the Palestinian Authority from Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants and then turned over to the Palestinian police.
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