Israel boosts West Bank settlers

Click to follow
The Israeli government plans to increase the number of settlers on the West Bank by 50,000 by lifting the restrictions on settlement construction imposed by the last government. The move of settlers into areas Palestinians hoped would form part of their autonomous enclave undermines fundamentally the land-for-peace formula which is the basis for the Oslo accords.

The settlements will be built along a system of bypass roads which Israel has constructed throughout the West Bank, which avoid Palestinian towns and villages, according to Israeli press reports. A first step will be to populate 1,500 empty housing as well as continuing building in existing settlements.

The friction between the 1.3 million Palestinians on the West Bank and the 140,000 Israeli settlers is at the heart of the conflict in the Middle East. Benjamin Netanyahu, the newly elected prime minister, and his government see the West Bank as the Land of Israel given by God to the Jews.

"The plan will pivot around the lifting of the freeze and restrictions on settlement construction which were emplaced by the Labour government," says the daily Haaretz. "Government sources estimate that in this way it will be possible to enlarge the number of Israelis in the territories by adding some 50,000 residents." The US will be informed of any new settlement being built. Mr Netanyahu is quoted as telling President Bill Clinton: "I'll update you in advance. We will not surprise you."

Previous statements by Mr Netanyahu suggest that the new settlement activity will be largely funded privately and not by the government. This shows the Prime Minister's tactical agility since Israelis living in Israel have resented in the past money lavished on settlements by the state which they would prefer to have spent on services for themselves.

The so-called bypass roads are more ambitious than their name suggests since they form a system of highways much superior in quality to the roads used by the Palestinian population. North of the Palestinian enclave of Ramallah yesterday bulldozers and trucks were carving through the soft brown rock to make way for a new road.

Although Mr Netanyahu does foresee some division of authority in the West Bank between Israel and the Palestinian Authority the expansion in the number of settlers will limit the size of the Palestinian enclaves. Mr Netanyahu wants areas of the West Bank retained for security reasons to be used for settlements.

"Netanyahu believes that settlement create facts with respect to the final status agreement [with the Palestinians]," says Nahum Barnea, the Israeli columnist. "The creation of facts on the ground is a tried and true principle which runs through Zionist history, and it now applies to Judea and Samaria [West Bank]."

The same suspicion has presumably occurred to Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, who is in Syria for his first extensive talks in 13 years. He may try to compensate for deteriorating relations with Tel Aviv by seeking a new understanding with Damascus.

Mr Netanyahu met Dennis Ross, the American peace coordinator yesterday in Jerusalem to discuss Syria,the Palestinians and the "Lebanon First" option whereby Israel would withdraw from a neutralised South Lebanon under the control the Lebanese government. It is unlikely, however, that Syria, as the predominant power in Lebanon, would favour a plan which would free Israel of its costly entanglement there. Israel is making clear that it will respond to attacks by Hizbollah guerrillas by bombing Syrian military positions in Lebanon.