JERUSALEM, DEC. 25 -- The Israeli government has announced plans to locate 2,500 more houses for Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that almost certainly will include new Soviet immigrants, despite past commitments to the United States and Soviet Union that Soviet immigrants now arriving in the country would not be settled in the occupied lands.
Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, who is heading the government's program to absorb the new immigrants, said 1,300 of the new units planned for the territories would be mobile homes, which Israel is importing by the thousands to meet its housing shortage. Another 1,200 permanent houses would be started by the government in settlements during the next year, he said.
Sharon, who disclosed what had been a closely guarded policy of the right-wing government in testimony Monday before the Israeli parliament, repeated the government's official stance that it is not "directing" immigrants to the territories. Nearly 200,000 new immigrants have arrived in Israel this year, mostly from the Soviet Union, and up to 400,000 are expected next year.
However, Sharon noted that the government is not preventing the Soviets from settling in the occupied areas, and that some are doing so. Critics in the parliament said the new construction would increase the flow, and possibly endanger U.S. financial support for absorption of the immigration.
Haim Oron, a deputy from the leftist Mapam Party who elicited the new information about building plans from Sharon, estimated that the government would spend $115 million next year building housing in the West Bank and Gaza. He warned that Sharon's plans might affect the present program of the United States to provide Israel with $400 million in loan guarantees for the construction of housing for immigrants.
Israel hopes to receive billions of dollars more in loan guarantees from the United States to finance a massive building program in the next few years. The Bush administration, however, held up the first $400 million in guarantees through most of this year while seeking assurances that Israel would not use the money to build housing in settlements.
The presence of Soviet immigrants in the settlements has been the most contentious issue between the Bush administration and the Israeli government under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Earlier this year, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev also warned that Moscow might reconsider its policy of allowing Jews to emigrate to Israel if they were settled in the occupied territories.
In an effort to defuse the issue, Sharon announced in June that the government would not settle arriving Soviets "beyond the Green Line," Israel's internationally recognized border until 1967. Since then, however, Sharon has retreated from the policy in several respects, announcing plans to settle thousands of immigrants in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, which lie beyond the Green Line but have been annexed by Israel.
Critics here argue that Sharon's decision to locate mobile homes in the territories has created the strongest connection yet between housing for immigrants and the Jewish settlements. Because the supply of housing in Israel has been exhausted by the flood of new arrivals, and permanent new houses will take more than a year to build, mobile and prefabricated houses are seen as the chief means of housing the tens of thousands of Soviets expected in the next few months.
If the government did not intend to send immigrants to the territories, a European diplomat noted today, it would have no reason to locate mobile homes there. "If the Russians aren't going there, then what's the reason to rush to put some of this temporary housing there?" he asked.
Government officials answered by pointing out that the planned new units in the territories represent only a small fraction of the tens of thousands of homes the government is planning. Sharon said Monday that 33,000 mobile homes will be imported next year, and 45,000 starts on permanent housing would be carried out during the current fiscal year, which ends next March.
In theory, officials said, the new units in the settlements could be occupied by other Israelis who have been waiting to move to the territories or who are pressed by rising rents in Israel proper.
Leaders of the settlement movement have been recruiting Soviet immigrants to live in their communities, and the Jewish Agency, which helps coordinate immigration, reported earlier this month that more than 1,000 of the newcomers were in the occupied lands. The figure did not include the several thousand who have moved to East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
Government officials and movement leaders claim that the settlements are growing rapidly, despite growing violence between Israelis and Palestinians. About 140 settlements have been set up in the West Bank and Gaza, and Sharon said Monday that their population had recently reached 100,000. About 1.7 million Arabs live in the territories.
After forming a new government last June with right-wing and religious parties, Shamir said Israel was not planning to start new settlements in the territories. Instead, government officials and settlement leaders made clear that they intended to pursue a strategy of expanding existing settlements while maintaining a low profile, so as to avoid endangering international support for the ongoing Soviet immigration.