Israel approves settler housing in the West Bank

Palestinians call move a breach of `road map'

December 27, 2006|By Richard Boudreaux | Richard Boudreaux,Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM -- Israel has approved construction of new housing for Jewish settlers in the West Bank, officials said yesterday, drawing protests from Palestinian leaders and Israeli peace activists who said the decision violates a three-year-old pledge to the United States to freeze settlement activity.

Israeli officials insisted that there was no such breach, saying the site of the new homes for 100 families in the northern Jordan valley had been a Jewish settlement since 1981.

But Palestinian leaders said the announcement, coming just three days after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas launched an effort to revive peace talks, undermined the cooperative spirit of the weekend meeting.

Saeb Erekat, an aide to Abbas who attended the meeting, said the plans for new West Bank housing was a breach of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.

Under that accord, Israel agreed to freeze settlement expansion while the Palestinians promised to crack down on militants. The accord broke down as neither side followed through.

"This is certain to destroy the atmosphere created after the meeting," Erekat said. "What message are the Israelis trying to send? Israel must choose between peace and settlements because there is no peace with settlements."

Hopes of advancing the peace effort faded further late yesterday when Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip launched seven rockets into Israel, wounding two 14-year-old boys who were running toward a bomb shelter in the town of Sederot. One of the boys was hospitalized in critical condition. They were the first Israeli casualties from 63 rockets fired by Palestinians in violation of a month-old cease-fire in the coastal territory, Israeli officials said.

Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant group, claimed that its forces had fired the rockets and said it was striking back for Israel's continued military raids on its West Bank hide-outs.

Olmert convened a meeting of his top security advisers today to debate Israel's policy of restraint. Defense Minister Amir Peretz was pressing for a resumption of retaliatory strikes, his aides said.

Saturday's two-hour summit, the first formal meeting between Olmert and Abbas, had been called in an effort to build on the cease-fire.

Olmert made several concessions to the Palestinians, promising to release $100 million in frozen taxes and duties that Israel had collected and to ease West Bank travel restrictions.

On Sunday, Olmert indicated that he might free some Palestinian prisoners in the coming days, softening his opposition to such a move. And Israeli officials said he was making plans to meet next week with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose government has been mediating between Israel and the Palestinians.

The United States implicitly criticized the Israeli plan yesterday.

"The U.S. view on settlements remains unchanged," said Geoff Anisman, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. "The U.S. continues to urge both sides to meet their road map obligations and to avoid taking steps that could be viewed as predetermining the outcome of final-status negotiations."

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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