Israel announces plans for new homes in Jewish settlement

Friday, October 3, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Israel announced Thursday it would build 565 new homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, violating a U.S.-backed peace plan and angering Palestinians already seething over plans to build a security barrier deep into the West Bank.

The "road map" peace plan requires a freeze in construction in some 150 Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war.

However, an Israeli official said Israel did not have any responsibility to meet its obligations until Palestinians crack down on militant groups.

"The road map is stalled as long as there is no action taken by the Palestinians to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure," said Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

When asked whether the U.S. government backed that interpretation, he said: "This is our understanding, the understanding that we have had all along, and we haven't changed it."

The Israeli government says it needs the new buildings to account for what it calls the "natural growth" of the settlements -- even though the vast majority of the new units were planned for a single settlement that is being dramatically expanded.

Barrier extended

The government announcement came a day after the Cabinet approved a portion of a security barrier that runs into the West Bank to shield key settlements -- as well as Israel -- from suicide bombers, who have killed hundreds of Israelis over the past three years.

Also Thursday, incoming Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia announced he would submit his proposed Cabinet for approval to the Palestinian Parliament on Wednesday.

He then accused Israel of trying to circumvent peace talks by seizing land Palestinians want for an eventual state.

The decision on the security wall and new settlement units "proves that the Israeli government is not serious about peace and that its goal is to draw the borders unilaterally and to sabotage the possibility for establishing a viable Palestinian state," he said.

The United States has said the wall's route could be interpreted as an effort to pre-empt negotiations and unilaterally define the border of a future Palestinian state.

In an effort to deflect the U.S. criticism, Israel is for now leaving large gaps in the barrier, which will be patrolled by troops; the final route will be decided in coming months.

A senior Israeli official said the sections will eventually be linked to each other and to the main barrier. That could take a bite some 20 miles deep into the West Bank, surrounding an area containing tens of thousands of Palestinians.

The Bush administration has said it might deduct some of the cost for the barrier from $9 billion in U.S. loan guarantees to Israel, and Congress has authorized the administration to reduce the guarantees, dollar-for-dollar, for what Israel spends on new settlement construction.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday the fence "presents a problem" and that "we also have concerns" about settlement construction. "We are examining the loan guarantees to determine what we should do about it," he said.

According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, 3,525 homes were under construction in West Bank and Gaza settlements in the first three months of this year. Since then, the government has announced plans to build another 1,261 homes, according to Peace Now, a group that monitors settlement activity, though other homes are likely being built privately.

The housing ministry said in a statement Thursday it was building the new homes "according to the government's policy to promote and develop communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip according to their needs and natural growth."

Despite Israel's argument that it is only accounting for "natural growth," more than 40 percent of the 12,000 new settlers in the West Bank and Gaza last year migrated from other areas, according to the statistics bureau. The population growth rate in the settlements is more than three times the total Israeli growth rate -- because of both migration and a high birth rate.

A settlement freeze would pose political difficulties for the rightist Sharon government. The roughly 220,000 settlers living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip comprise a strong base of support for the government, and the hard-line majority in the Cabinet would likely torpedo any attempt to halt construction.

Most of the new homes -- 530 -- were to be built in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit outside Jerusalem, where more than 20,000 people live. The rest were to be built in two other settlements.

The government is taking advantage of the needs of some Israelis to try to push its policy of settlement expansion, said Yariv Oppenheimer of Peace Now.

"If you have a large family and are Orthodox and you want to live in Jerusalem, it's very hard, it's very expensive. But if you want to live in Beitar Illit, this is the solution for you," he said.

Despite the government's arguments, it is still bound by the road map, Oppenheimer said.

"If the road map is dead, the Israeli government should tell the public they are not going to follow it. If it is still alive, they should keep it," he said.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, meanwhile, a Palestinian man accused of collaborating with Israeli intelligence was killed with a single gunshot to the head as he lay in a Ramallah hospital bed late Wednesday, said a spokesman for the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent group loosely affiliated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

Israeli intelligence makes frequent use of Palestinian informants to target wanted Palestinians, and dozens of suspected collaborators have been killed by fellow Palestinians during three years of violence.

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