Israel plans to build more homes in West Bank settlements

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The Independent Online

In a violation of the "road-map" peace plan backed by President George Bush, Israel announced plans to build more than 600 new homes in Jewish settlements inside the West Bank yesterday.

The announcement will exacerbate fears that the road-map is being pushed off the agenda. The day before, the Israeli Cabinet defied American pressure and decided that its controversial "separation fence" would cut deep into the West Bank so that settlements would be on the "Israeli" side.

The peace plan calls for a complete freeze on the building of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. But Ariel Sharon's government published tenders yesterday to build 604 new houses in three West Bank settlements.

The original aim of the settlements, which are built on occupied land in contravention of international law, was to stake a claim to the land as Israeli. President Bush, who promised an independent Palestinian state as part of a peace deal, has told Israel that it must "deal with" the settlements, which today carve chunks out of the remaining 22 per cent of British-mandate Palestine where the Palestinians want to set up a state.

But it was Mr Sharon who called on the settlers to grab the hilltops of the West Bank before any final deal could be made under the Oslo peace process, and it is Mr Sharon who has been the driving force behind diverting the route of the "security fence", or wall, so that major settlements will be on the "Israeli" side.

Now, despite the road-map's call for a freeze on settlement construction, Israel has issued tenders for 50 new houses in the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, near Jerusalem, 530 in Beitar Illit, and 24 in Ariel, the settlement deep inside the West Bank at the heart of the controversy over the new stretch of fence.

The new Palestinian Prime Minister, Ahmed Qureia, said yesterday: "The Israeli decision to continue building the wall and today's decision to build 600 settlement units proves that the Israeli government is not serious about peace and that its goal is to draw the borders unilaterally and to sabotage the possibility for establishing a viable Palestinian state."

Mr Sharon's government says it remains committed to what it calls the "natural growth" of existing settlements, and claims that this is not excluded by the road-map's call for a settlement freeze.

But an adviser to Mr Sharon, Zalman Shoval, implied yesterday that Israel could disregard the road-map for the time being. "The road-map is stalled as long as there is no action taken by the Palestinians to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure," he said.

The road-map calls on the Palestinian Authority to rein in militant groups and put a stop to suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis. Mr Sharon's government was quick to point the finger of blame at Mr Qureia's predecessor, Abu Mazen, for failing to put a complete stop to militant attacks, although he did deliver a ceasefire which held for six weeks.

Not only the Palestinians, but international observers who include President Bush's National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, have said that the "security fence" Israel is building, a series of concrete walls and high metal fences, looks like an attempt to establish a new de facto border.

The US, which pushed for the fence to be built on or near the Green Line, the internationally recognised border between Israel and the West Bank, has threatened to punish Israel for its intransigence over the issue be deducting the cost of building stretches that stray too far from the Green Line from $9bn of loan guarantees to bail out Israel's economy. But the Americans refrained from publicly criticising the Israeli decision to go ahead with building a fence east of Ariel and other settlements, saying only that they would continue to talk to Israeli officials.

The Israeli government says the fence can still be removed as part of a peace deal and is intended to stop suicide bombers crossing into Israel.