JERUSALEM, March 21 -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has approved the construction of 3,500 new homes for Jewish settlers that would link the largest settlement in the West Bank to Jerusalem.
Sharon accepted the Defense Ministry's final plan on Sunday for a swath of houses, apartments and public facilities that would connect the settlement of Maleh Adumim to the eastern borders of Jerusalem, Raanan Gissin, the prime minister's spokesman, said Monday.
An Israeli tractor works on the construction of a new neighborhood at Maleh Adumim, the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
(Gil Cohen Magen -- Reuters)
The Israeli government gave initial approval to the expansion plan in 1999, and work on the project began last September. But construction was soon halted after inquiries by The Washington Post confirmed that it was being performed without required building permits and in violation of Maleh Adumim's master development plan.
Gissin said the plan was formally approved by the government after "some changes in location, not in the overall plan." He said the expansion was "for strategic importance."
Palestinian officials denounced the project as a violation of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan and said it threatened to undermine future negotiations.
"If they carry out this scheme, they're going to be shutting the door for peace," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, who accused Sharon of "abandoning negotiation and continuing the facts on the ground as the negotiation tools."
Later Monday, the Israeli military announced that Palestinian security forces had been given authority over the West Bank town of Tulkarm and nearby villages as of 8 p.m. A military spokeswoman said the roadblock separating the town from the villages would be removed Tuesday morning. Israeli forces will continue to control the Tulkarm gate in the barrier built by Israel to wall off the West Bank, the spokeswoman said.
Tulkarm is the second of five West Bank towns where Israeli officials have said they would allow Palestinian police to resume authority after nearly three years of occupation or checkpoint controls by Israeli forces. Israel allowed Palestinian police to take control of Jericho last Wednesday.
The expansion of Maleh Adumim -- the West Bank's largest Jewish settlement with 30,000 residents -- is part of an Israeli government plan known as E-1, which anti-settlement activists have called the final step in sealing off Palestinians living in the West Bank from north and east Jerusalem. The development is also part of a plan to cordon off Jerusalem's Old City and its disputed holy sites.
The final status of Jerusalem and access to its holy sites are among the most contentious issues dividing Palestinians and Israelis, who both claim the city as their capital. U.S. officials, including President Bush, have said the final status of Jerusalem should be determined by negotiations between the two parties.
In Washington on Monday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters that he had no information regarding Sharon's move. However, he said the road map peace plan "calls for an end to settlement activity and action against terrorist infrastructure. Those are important commitments that both sides have made and that we look forward to both sides following through on."
But Gissin, Sharon's spokesman, cited a letter delivered to Sharon by Bush last April to buttress Israel's argument that the expansion was legitimate.
Bush said "new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers" -- a reference to major settlements -- would likely preclude "a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949" -- the Green Line separating Israel from the West Bank.
The approval of the Maleh Adumim expansion was granted barely two weeks after a government-sanctioned report accused Israel of funding and building Jewish settlement outposts across the West Bank in violation of its own laws and international mandates.
Gissin said the expansion of Maleh Adumim, which he said was initially approved five years ago, had "nothing to do with outposts," adding, "Everything was done there with the approval of every Israeli government and in accordance with the law."
Last summer, construction crews began leveling a space the size of four football fields on a hillside just outside Jerusalem for a new police station. After an inquiry by The Post, Israel's highest development authority in the West Bank, the Supreme Planning Council, stopped the project on Sept. 13 because it was started without building permits or approved plans and "violated the laws of planning and construction," according to Lt. Talya Somech of the Israeli army, who serves as a spokeswoman for the military in the West Bank.