West Bank plan for settlement raises hope, fury

January 11, 2007|By John Murphy | John Murphy,sun foreign reporter

MASKIOT, West Bank -- It took thousands of Israeli soldiers and police armed with riot gear and bulldozers to pull Yosi Hazut and hundreds of his neighbors from their hard-line Jewish settlement of Shirat Hayam during Israel's tumultuous and expensive withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

Now Hazut and other former Gaza settlers want to build again in the Palestinian territories. This time they plan to construct a settlement in the cinnamon- colored hills of the Jordan Valley in the West Bank.

"We'll start out with 26 units and then we'll see," said Hazut, the project manager, as he pointed to an empty hillside where he hopes to provide housing for 100 families or more. "There will be a swimming pool, synagogue and playing fields, too."

But Hazut's ambitious building plans have drawn fury from the Palestinians, criticism from the United States and the European Union, and possibly set the stage for the next showdown between the Israeli government and Jewish settlers.

Two weeks ago, Israel's Defense Ministry granted Hazut and other former Gaza settlers permission to build 30 new homes near Maskiot, an abandoned Israeli army outpost that is now used as a campus for a religious, pre-military school.

Palestinian leaders condemned the action, and the United States and the European Union expressed serious concern that the construction would violate Israel's promise to halt all home construction in the Palestinian territories.

Others suggested that Israel, after spending $2 billion to remove settlers from Gaza, could be forced to uproot some of them all over again. As part of any peace agreement with the Palestinians, this remote settlement would likely be dismantled to create an independent Palestinian state, critics say.

Israel's support of the settlement construction also appeared to contradict promises made by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, during his campaign and in recent weeks, to make far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians, including the evacuation of tens of thousands of settlers from the West Bank.

"Israel is building a settlement in an area where there is not any scenario for disengagement in which it would remain in Israel. This reflects, more than anything else, a total irresponsibility of the government toward its commitment of redefining Israel's borders," said Dror Etkes, director of the settlement watch program run by Peace Now, a left-wing group opposed to settlements.

Israeli officials say the settlement expansion is legal and that the government remains committed to creating an independent Palestinian state.

Still, Olmert's willingness to approve the Maskiot settlement - just days after meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in an effort to restart peace negotiations - was widely interpreted as a sign of both Olmert's political weakness and the continued strength of Israel's settlement movement.

Less than a year ago, the tables were turned. Evacuation of Gaza's settlements, and the election victory of Olmert's centrist Kadima Party - which pledged to undertake similar withdrawals from the West Bank - had left the settlers in disarray.

But the public support for more settlement evacuations has diminished since last summer. The abduction of an Israeli soldier in June and continued rocket attacks by Palestinian militants forced Israeli soldiers back to Gaza less than a year after the celebrated withdrawal. A few weeks later, Israel returned to Lebanon - after ending its occupation there in 2000 - in pursuit of Hezbollah militants who abducted two other Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

Olmert's popularity plummeted after the Lebanon war, and it has not recovered amid continuing scandals and a failure to articulate a new agenda for his government. According to a poll released last week, 77 percent of Israelis are unhappy with the prime minister's performance.

In recent months the settlement movement has stepped into this political void, quietly and steadily adding to its settlement of about 450,000 people in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

In Amona, an outpost where Israeli authorities clashed with settlers and right-wing activists to raze nine illegally built homes, settlers have since added 12 mobile homes. An investigation by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, quoting Defense Ministry data, found 200 structures set up in the West Bank in the past six months without government permission.

"Virtually not a week goes by without a new revelation, each more sensational and revolting than the previous one about the building spree in the West Bank settlements in blatant violation of the law and in complete contradiction to official government policy," an editorial in Haaretz said last week.

Taken in this context, it is no surprise that Olmert has not tried to stop the Maskiot settlement, analysts say. Despite his promises to eliminate illegal outposts and evacuate more settlements, it may be impossible for him to do so.

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