The government of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin is rushing to build 10 more settlements in the occupied West Bank in the five months it has left before facing an election and possible ouster by the opposition Labor Party.
The purpose, according to critics of Begin's settlement policies, is to lock the Labor Party into irrevocable projects on the West Bank of the Jordon River and make a negotiated territorial compromise much more difficult.
Government sources confirmed that there are also plans to construct five or six new paramilitary settlements inside Israel, near Hebron, and six smaller observation posts northeast of Tel Aviv, along the Israeli side of the pre-1967 armistice line with Jordan.
The new West Bank settlements would bring to 49 the number of Jewish civilian communities started in the occupied area since the Camp David peace accords were signed nearly two years ago. The total operating, under construction or approved by the government would climb to 80.
Prodded by Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, the Cabinet's most out-spoken advocate of Jewish civilian settlements under an accelerated construction schedule and to expand other outposts.
An agreement reportedly has been reached with a consortium of nine private contractors for the construction of 1,8000 houses at Karnai Shomrom settlement near Nablus.
In the time left before the election, Sharon has said, "a lot may be accomplished in Judea and Samaria, and we will do all we can to reinforce Jewish settlement in the territories and to expand it." Judea and Samaria are the Biblical names for the West Bank.
The sudden burst of settlement activity since the Cabinet agreed a week ago to dissolve the parliament and seek new elections has caused controversy over its purpose and method of financing.
Public opinion polls indicate that the opposition Labor Party has a wide edge over Begin's Likud government. Since the Labor Party is opposed to settlements in densely inhabited Arab areas and has proposed territorial compromise in which most of the West Bank would be returned to Jordan, Sharon's efforts are widely viewed as a desperate attempt by the government to make a negotiated solution of the Palestinian problem inpossible for any future government.
Some Labor members of parliament seek to debate the settlement plans on the ground that they will undermine the peace process. Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin has appealed the Cabinet decision on three of the new settlements.
But following today's Cabinet session, Interior Mininster Yosef Burg said the controversy had been magnified. "I feel there is nothing new in it. The government decided we will have all 10 settlements, and I believe most of them were already decided upon." Burg said.
Last May, Begin said in an interview that the government planned only 10 more settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and that it would then concentrate on expanding existing outposts. In the succeeding months, it approved at least five outposts, although the prime minister never made clear whether they were intended to be included among the 10 he mentioned earlier.
The most furor has focused on a plan by Sharon, who is chairman of the ministerial settlements commilttee, to pay contractors buildilng outpost in the West Bank by deeding them valuable state-owned property in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Beersheba an other Israeli cities.
The proposal, not yet approved by the Cabinet nor the authority that controls public land, is designed to offset a shortage of funds with which to pay private contractors for work in the West Bank.
The proposal, designed to allow the financially strapped government to speed up settlement construction without special budget appropriations, was sharply criticized by Jersusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek as waste of valuable city land. c
Sharon reportedly also has led a fund-raising effort in South Africa and among supporters of the ultranationalist Gush Emunim settlement movement in other countries to raise money with which to build on the West Bank.
The settlements controversy was further fueled today as several hundred settlers from the Givon outpost squatted on land just north of Jerusalem and demanded that it be used for the construction of a permanent outpost. The said they had been living in temporary housing for more than three years waiting for government approval of permanent housing. The West Bank military governor, Brig. Gen. Binyamin ben-Eliezer, said the Army did not intend to try to remove them.