Revived Israeli Plan for New Homes in West Bank Sparks Outcry

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 25, 2008

JERUSALEM, July 24 -- Israeli officials on Thursday revived plans to construct a new settlement in the occupied West Bank, two years after U.S. pressure forced Israel to shelve the idea.

Although only about 20 homes are slated to be built at a site known as Maskiyot, in the Jordan Valley, the plan is significant because it would appear to defy an Israeli promise made at the Annapolis peace conference last November not to establish any new settlements.

The State Department issued a statement noting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's frequent observation that "settlement expansion is not helpful."

Referring to a 2003 peace initiative, the statement said that settlement expansion "is inconsistent with Israel's commitments under the Road Map and does not contribute to an environment supportive of negotiations."

The new settlement would be the first in a decade and would contribute to a wave of building going on across the West Bank, as Israel adds thousands of new homes to existing settlements despite international calls to halt construction. An estimated 260,000 to 280,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank, not including those who live in parts of East Jerusalem that Israel has annexed, a move not recognized internationally.

Palestinians fear that settlement growth will ruin the viability of their state before it can be created, and on Thursday they reacted angrily to the latest plans.

"They're burying the Annapolis process," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. "They are destroying all credibility among our people. It's absolutely undermining everything we're trying to do."

Erekat said he had asked U.S. officials to intervene to stop the construction. "I know they can," Erekat said. "I hope they will."

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that he was "deeply concerned" about the construction plan, adding that it would violate international law.

Israeli officials said Thursday that a key Israeli defense committee authorized construction of the homes at Maskiyot. The plan has not yet been approved by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, but government officials said the ministerial committee would not have given its sanction unless Barak planned to allow the construction.

The plan must also be approved by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. His spokesman, Mark Regev, said the matter had not yet come before the prime minister, and no decision had been made as of Thursday. Although Israel agreed to freeze "all settlement activity" under the road map, Olmert has maintained that Israel has the right to continue to build in areas it will ultimately control under a future agreement, including East Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs of the West Bank. That interpretation also has not been accepted internationally.

"The Israeli government will abide by our commitment not to establish new settlements and not to outwardly expand the existing ones," Regev said, citing what he called a history of Israeli civilians living at Maskiyot.

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