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Israel approves construction more homes at settlements { December 3 2003 }

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Israel Approves Construction Of More Homes At Settlements

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 3, 2003; Page A16

JERUSALEM -- The government of Israel has approved the construction of more than 1,720 new houses in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip this year, according to critics of the settlements who say they undercut a U.S.-backed peace plan that mandates a freeze on settlement expansion.

The planned building is in addition to at least 1,000 homes and other infrastructure projects under construction in the West Bank, which Israel is also encircling with a massive fence complex, according to groups and officials that monitor settlement activity.

Two weeks ago, Israeli soldiers began expanding the boundary of Beitar Ilit, a community of more than 20,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews about five miles southwest of Jerusalem. Beitar Ilit is one of the fastest-growing settlements in the West Bank; it added 2,900 residents last year.

Last week, Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim announced that several unauthorized settlement outposts -- many of them just a trailer on a remote hilltop between existing settlements -- would soon be categorized as legitimate settlements.

"I've never seen settlement expansion at such a rate, ever," said Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian political analyst, who claimed that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is pushing ahead with settlements while the peace process drags on. "He's stealing time to impose his own facts on the ground by practically annexing more than half the West Bank" with the fence project, Barghouti added, "and imposing ghettoization on Palestinian villages that will mean the destruction of a two-state solution."

The Jewish settlers acknowledge their goal is to add more housing. "Our target is to grow and expand as much as possible," said Yehoshua Mor-Yosef, a spokesman for the Yesha Council, the settlement umbrella organization.

In recent weeks, U.S. officials have criticized Israel's refusal to stop building both settlements and the barrier snaking through the West Bank. The officials have said the moves complicate the revival of the peace plan known as the "road map," and could undermine a final accord. The road map, which was adopted by the Israelis and Palestinians at a summit meeting in Aqaba, Jordan, on June 4, obligates Israel to freeze "all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)" and "immediately" dismantle the estimated 56 outposts established since Sharon took office in March 2001.

"Israel should freeze settlement construction, dismantle unauthorized outposts, end the daily humiliation of the Palestinian people and not prejudice final negotiations with the placements of walls and fences," President Bush said in a speech two weeks ago in London.

Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said Israel was committed to removing a few dozen outposts but added, "We can't evacuate them when we're under attack. That only encourages more terrorist activity."

Israel has also agreed to freeze the number, but not the size, of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Gissin said. He said Israel has an "understanding" with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that natural growth is permitted. "People have the right to live and multiply and give birth, and we are not going to throw them out," he said.

U.S. officials have denied that Powell made any agreement permitting the natural growth of settlements.

In addition to 635 new homes approved before the Aqaba summit, the Israeli government has approved the construction of at least 1,092 more in the West Bank since adopting the road map, according to Peace Now, a group that is critical of settlements and that monitors housing construction contracts. The total of 1,727 homes approved so far this year is roughly the same as in the previous two years, before Israel adopted the road map, according to the Foundation for Middle East Peace, a Washington-based research group that monitors settlement policy.

Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz have been quoted in the Israeli press in recent days as saying that Israel has dismantled 43 outposts since the Aqaba summit. The government refused several requests to provide a list of the outposts. Instead, it referred a reporter to testimony in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, two weeks ago in which Gideon Ezra, a minister without portfolio in Sharon's government, named 10 outposts that had been evacuated.

Peace Now, which keeps authoritative settlement data, claims that 15 outposts have been dismantled since Aqaba, including seven that were built after the summit. Five outposts established after Aqaba have not been dismantled, according to the group, for a net decrease of three outposts since the peace plan was adopted.

Israel's settlement program is highly controversial and over the years has proven difficult to curtail. Many Israelis citizens oppose the settlements, believing they are expropriation of Palestinian land, a drain on Israel's budget and military resources and the main obstacle to reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians.

But other Israelis believe the lands, particularly in the West Bank, were promised to the Jewish people in the Bible and that they have a religious duty to live there. Since seizing the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 war, the Israeli government has encouraged the growth of settlements by subsidizing their development and offering tax breaks, low interest rates and other financial incentives to Israelis who move to them. The large growth in settlements came in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Israeli military, eager to occupy the strategic hilltops where most settlements are located, helped guide the expansion, and Sharon was one of its chief architects. Since he became prime minister, the number of settlers has grown almost 20 percent -- totaling about 230,000 today -- and the number of settlement outposts has more than doubled, to 102, according to data compiled Peace Now.

Today, some of the settlements are small, modern cities, and Israeli and Palestinian analysts and politicians say it is unlikely that Israel will ever relinquish the biggest and oldest of those.

Israelis say that some settlement expansion is for security, citing numerous attacks on settlements by Palestinians. In the rapidly growing settlement of Beitar Ilit, for instance, the Israeli military recently began moving the boundary fence outward about 200 feet to widen the buffer zone around the settlement and give security officials more time to respond to an incursion by armed Palestinians, a military spokesman said. Numerous Palestinian olive trees are being uprooted by the project, and dozens more will now be inside the settlement's fence.

Beitar Ilit's mayor Yitzhak Pindrus, said the newly fenced land will continue to be owned by Palestinians, who will be allowed to enter the settlement through a gate to tend their trees. Settlement experts say they know of no precedent for such an arrangement at any of Israel's 155 settlements.

Dror Etkes, the head of Peace Now's settlement watch program, compared today's settlement and outpost expansion with settlement growth in the 1990s that was one factor, along with Palestinian attacks against Israelis, in undermining the 1993 Oslo peace accords. Since Oslo, the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has more than doubled.

"The Palestinians understood there was no point in negotiating with Israel when the circumstances were creating such a growth in settlements, and that eventually created this explosion," Etkes said, referring to the three-year Palestinian uprising against Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But Gissin, the Israeli government spokesman, said complaints about settlement growth were excuses to let the Palestinians off the hook for not combating terrorism. "Every time they come to a difficult stage, they want to move the goal post," he said. "They can't fight terror, so they say Israel is not doing this or that. We are trying to do our part, but it is extremely difficult to remove settlements when the ground is infested with terrorism."

2003 The Washington Post Company

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