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On the eve of new Israeli-Syrian peace talks, an adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak confirmed Wednesday that Israel has approved the construction of new homes in the Golan Heights, a strategic area that is claimed by Syria.

The move was decried by Syrian media as a hurdle to the peace process. Syria wants the return of the entire plateau that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war.

Meanwhile, Israel today released seven Palestinian security prisoners who live in East Jerusalem, despite initial concerns that this move could be seen as Israeli acceptance of Palestinian claims to the disputed sector.

Today's prisoner release was the fourth since Israel and the Palestinians signed their latest interim peace deal in September. In all, Israel released 383 Palestinian prisoners held for anti-Israeli acts, but hundreds more remain in jail.

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