Israel says new settlements are legal

January 27, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Israeli officials are defending the surge of Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank, saying it does not violate promises Israel made to the Palestinians or the United States.

The officials say the construction now taking place is not covered by pledges made to the United States in 1992 to restrict settlement growth. Those restrictions enabled Israel to secure $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees in 1992 and to sign a peace pact with Palestinians in 1993.

Yesterday, Israeli soldiers blocked two efforts by Jewish settlers to start building on land near Ramallah and south of Bethlehem in the West Bank, saying the settlements had not been approved by the government.

But Palestinians still were reacting angrily to Wednesday's decision by a government committee -- including Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin -- to permit continued construction and sales of nearly 3,200 more housing units for Jews in the West Bank.

The decision will allow an increase of more than 10 percent in the number of Jewish settlers -- now about 140,000 -- living in guarded enclaves among 2.4 million Palestinians.

A spokesman for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said yesterday in Amman, the Jordanian capital, that the decision violates a promise Mr. Rabin had made to Mr. Arafat in a meeting last week.

"We were informed officially by Rabin that settlements will be frozen and he will not allow any spending on settlements or the expansion of existing settlements," said spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeineh at a news conference.

Despite rising protests by Palestinians about the settlements, Mr. Arafat had emerged from the Jan. 18 closed meeting with Mr. Rabin seeming mollified on the issue.

Palestinians say the September 1993 peace agreement included understanding that Israel would stop the expansion of Jewish settlements. In the pact, Israel promised to withdraw troops from Palestinian areas in the West Bank and negotiate the whole settlement issue starting in 1996.

Similarly, U.S. approval of loan guarantees for Israel was held up in 1991 by U.S. objections to the Jewish settlements, which are in areas beyond Israel's internationally recognized borders. The loan guarantees were approved when Mr. Rabin, newly elected, announced a "freeze" on settlements in 1992.

But Israel contends its curbs applied only to new settlements and only to publicly financed construction. Since Mr. Rabin took office, thousands of housing units have been completed or approved as supposedly private construction, or as expansions of existing settlements.

"We have made a reaffirmation of our policy that the government of Israel will not establish new settlements, expand new settlements, will not expropriate land for settlements," Uri Savir, director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said yesterday. "There has been no change in the government policy."

But Palestinian and leftist Israelis have complained that those definitions have been severely stretched. Some of the so-called settlement expansions have been a considerable distance from existing settlements.

And supposedly private construction has received government approval, often with government transfers of low-cost land, government financing for streets, utilities and schools, and even government-underwritten mortgages for settlers purchasing the new homes.

Mr. Rabin's own housing minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, boasted Israel television of circumventing the restrictions.

"[Despite] unequivocal demands for a freeze, a total freeze, building continues," he said Wednesday.

Mr. Rabin has been periodically critical of the settlements. In a meeting with officials of his Labor Party yesterday, he repeated a complaint that the settlements do not help Israel's security and require too many soldiers to guard them, according to state-run Israel Radio.

But Palestinians say they no longer believe that the messages Mr. Rabin sends on settlements correspond with the actions of his government.

Issam abdullatif, a Palestinian activist in Ramallah, complained in the newspaper An Nahar that Israel was taking advantage of sympathy generated by recent bombings "to complete what the bulldozers of settlement expansion have begun."

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