Israel OKs building of more West Bank housing

The government approved the construction of new housing in a settlement, a move likely to draw international criticism and complicate already stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.

Reviving of delayed project encumbers stalled peace talks

Ashraf Khalil, Los Angeles Times

The Israeli government approved on Sunday the construction of new housing in a West Bank settlement, a move likely to draw international criticism and complicate already stalled negotiations with the Palestinians.

Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat called the project “another slap in the face of the peace process.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert approved a plan to renew construction of a delayed 330-unit project in Givat Zeev, a West Bank settlement that already is home to about 10,000 Israelis. The project originally began in 1999 but was suspended when the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, broke out the following year.

“You had the beginning of the intifada, the high-tech-bubble burst and there was a general downturn in the economy,” Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said, explaining the long delay in restarting the project.

With the Israeli housing market booming again, the builders asked to proceed with a downsized version of the original 750-unit contract in Givat Zeev, Regev said. Any settlement construction must receive top-level government approval.

The United States has called settlement expansion an impediment to peace.

Regev said the expansion was in line with the government’s international commitments. Under terms of the “road map” peace plan, Israel agreed to halt the creation of new settlements, stop expansion of existing settlements and dismantle small ad hoc outposts that dot the West Bank. But Israeli officials also interpreted that commitment as exempting those settlements, such as Givat Zeev, that Israel intends to keep.

“We’ve said all along that there won’t be a complete freeze in construction in the large settlement blocs,” Regev said. “We’ve been very consistent and up-front.”

Olmert, in a January interview with the Jerusalem Post, acknowledged that Israel has not held up its end of the agreement regarding settlements.

“Every year, all the settlements in all the territories (of the West Bank) continue to grow,” Olmert said. “There is a certain contradiction in this, between what we’re actually seeing and what we ourselves promised. … We have obligations related to settlements, and we will honor them.”

Sunday’s announcement drew quick condemnation from the Palestinian Authority.

“This is a provocative action by Israel that demonstrates its intention of further strengthening its illegal occupation and colonization of Palestinian territory,” Erekat said in a statement.

The new construction comes at a sensitive time for U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations. A Palestinian gunman killed nine students Thursday night at a Jerusalem religious seminary. Earlier in the week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas suspended peace talks after a several-day Israeli incursion in the Gaza Strip killed more than 100 Palestinians. Abbas later agreed to return to the negotiating table.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. William Fraser, an envoy for the Bush administration, is scheduled to arrive Thursday for joint meetings to assess each side’s fulfillment of obligations under the road-map agreement.

Erekat called the timing of the settlement expansion just before Frazier’s visit outrageous.

Olmert’s approval has been interpreted by some as a gesture to right-wing partners in his fragile coalition government. Israel Radio reported that the Shas party, a key coalition partner, had threatened to bolt the government unless the construction was approved.

//san francisco chronicle//

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Posted in Israel, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Legal, Palestinian Territories, Suspect Legislation, US - Israel relations

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