Israel OKs West Bank housing

Times Staff Writer

The Israeli government Sunday approved the construction of new housing in a West Bank settlement, a move likely to draw international criticism and complicate already stalled peace 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 delayed construction of a 330-unit project in Givat Zeev, a West Bank settlement that is already home to about 10,000 settlers.


The project 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,” said Olmert spokesman Mark Regev, 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, 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 a U.S.-backed peace plan known as the “road map,” Israel agreed to halt the creation of new settlements, stop expansion of existing ones 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 blocks,” Regev said. “We’ve been very consistent and upfront.”

Olmert, in a January interview with the Jerusalem Post, acknowledged that Israel had 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 eight students in a shooting spree Thursday night at a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem. Earlier in the week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas suspended peace talks after a days-long 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 III, an envoy for the Bush administration, is scheduled to arrive Thursday for joint meetings that will assess each side’s fulfillment of its obligations under the road map agreement.


Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.