Israel to add 3,500 West Bank houses

Project appears to violate U.S.-backed peace plan

March 22, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Palestinians reacted with dismay yesterday to Israel's announcement that it will build 3,500 more housing units in and near the West Bank's largest Jewish settlement, in apparent contravention of a U.S.-backed peace blueprint.

Meanwhile, after several days of delay and argument, Israel formally handed over the West Bank town of Tulkarm to Palestinian security control late yesterday. Tulkarm is the second of five Palestinian towns and cities from which Israeli troops are pulling back under an agreement reached last month at a summit in Egypt.

The Tulkarm area is a stronghold of Palestinian militant groups, a factor that could pose a serious challenge for Palestinian forces policing it. The young bomber who blew himself up Feb. 25 outside a Tel Aviv nightclub, killing five Israelis, came from a village outside the town.

It was well after dark when the handover agreement was completed. Uniformed Palestinian police immediately began fanning out in the streets. The main Israeli checkpoint on the town's edge was to be dismantled this morning.

Palestinian rejoicing over the Tulkarm handover was dampened by word of the Israeli plan to substantially expand the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim. The construction, which would solidify Israel's grip on the city of 30,000, was first reported by the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot yesterday and subsequently confirmed by Israeli officials.

Israel has long held that Maale Adumim, an American-style suburb with shopping malls, swimming pools and manicured lawns, is an integral part of nearby Jerusalem. The government made it official last week that the settlement would end up on the Israeli side of a barrier under construction in the West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said that he intends to retain Maale Adumim and other large West Bank settlements close to Jerusalem in exchange for a scheduled withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer.

Palestinians view the latest expansion with particular distress because it will bring Maale Adumim's boundaries closer to traditionally Arab East Jerusalem, which they claim as their capital.

The building project, they say, will cut East Jerusalem off from Palestinian communities in the West Bank and place a wide wedge of Jewish homes between the northern and southern West Bank. That would be a blow to the Palestinians' hopes for controlling contiguous territory to form a nation.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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