Aerial survey shows 34 new settlements built under Sharon

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Israel has built nearly three dozen new settlements in the occupied territories since Ariel Sharon became Prime Minister, in violation of international law and stated public policy, figures released yesterday indicated.

The Israeli pressure group Peace Now said an aerial survey of the West Bank showed that 34 new sites had been set up on Arab land since the election in February last year of Mr Sharon, a life-long supporter of the settler movement.

The prolific construction of settlements is regarded by the international community as one of the most biggest obstacles to peace-making. But its efforts to stop the building have consistently failed.

Palestinian armed groups have repeatedly targeted Jewish settlers, of whom there are more than 200,000 in the occupied territories (excluding east Jerusalem) living on land wanted by the Palestinians to create a state. The United States, Israel's closest ally, has urged Israel to stop building, saying it damages negotiations.

Israeli officials maintain the sites are not new, but the expansion of existing settlements on land set aside for Israelis. There are more than 145 Jewish settlements across the occupied territories, some of them sizeable urban areas strategically located to split up Palestinian territory and to reinforce Israel's control over the entire Jerusalem metropolitan area, including its occupied Arab eastern half.

They are supported by a growing network of bypass roads, protected by the army, and depend on large amounts of government funds, including loans and subsidies encouraging Israelis to move into the West Bank.

Didi Remez, a spokesman for Peace Now, said the survey showed most of the new settlement sites were at least 700 metres from established settlements, and some were at least two kilometres away. "There is a very clear change on the ground," he said. "They are new settlements because they have an independent infrastructure and control new terrain."

A Peace Now statement said the survey did not count military or quasi-military sites, or temporary memorial sites established in the same period.

The Mitchell report, the so-called "road map" back to negotiations, identified the settlements as a problem and called for a freeze on settlement building, including for so-called natural growth.

Mr Sharon has repeatedly said he accepts the Mitchell plan, but for months he blocked its implementation.

The latest flurry of settlement building – which contravenes the Geneva Convention – violates a domestic agreement between Mr Sharon and the Labour Party, his biggest coalition partner.

It also contradicts the views of many Israelis who believe the settlers unnecessarily endanger the army, whose soldiers must defend them amid more than 3 million Palestinians, and creates unwanted friction points.

An opinion poll published last week in Israel found that 45 per cent would be willing to see the dismantling of all settlements.