Sharon attacked on cash for settlements

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The Independent Online

Ariel Sharon's government has allocated an extra 96 million shekels (£11.4m) for new building in West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem, only two weeks after the Prime Minister promised to remove all settlements from the Gaza Strip. The latest move is in defiance of the international "road map" for peace, which calls for a freeze on all settlement construction. One of the settlements due to benefit is Migron, an "unauthorised" outpost which the Defence Ministry has said it plans to remove. Some observers saw the additional funding as a gesture of appeasement to right-wing coalition rebels, who have threatened to bring down the government if Mr Sharon goes ahead with his proposed evacuation of 17 Gaza settlements.

The money will come from this year's budget for the Housing Ministry, which is controlled by the pro-settler National Religious Party. It was originally earmarked for meeting the housing needs of poor families inside Israel proper.

The allocation for settlement building was approved by the narrowest of margins - eight to seven - in a parliamentary committee on Monday. The opposition claimed the vote was not on the agenda. It comes at a time of severe economic crisis, when the government has raised the controlled price of bread and is planning sweeping cuts in the already squeezed budgets for health, education, welfare and law and order.

Mr Sharon, who faces further investigation on suspicion of taking bribes, infuriated senior police officers on Monday when he ordered them to get on with the job and to stop complaining that they have no money to fight organised crime.

Left-wing MPs condemned the settlement decision as "twisted" logic. Haim Oron of the Meretz party said: "In the morning, the finance committee spent two hours discussing the increase in the price of bread, which places a burden of 50 million shekels on the weaker sectors of society, and, in the afternoon, the coalition organised to transfer nearly 100 million shekels to the occupied territories.

"Once again, it has been proved that the Sharon government says, 'I don't have any' when it comes to the needs of the entire nation, but says 'I have' ... to the settlements."

Meanwhile, Tommy Lapid, the Justice Minister, came out strongly yesterday against the government's decision to boycott hearings of the International Court into the legality of Israel's West Bank security fence. The first session is due to begin in The Hague on 23 February. Israel claimed that the fence, which snakes through Arab towns and villages, was essential to keep out suicide bombers. Palestinians said it caused unnecessary hardship to 400,000 innocent civilians. Mr Lapid said: "This is basically a worldwide tribunal, where your opinions should be broadcast and reported everywhere in the world." Mr Lapid was the only minister who voted against refusing to present Israel's case to the court.

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