Sharon rips up 'road-map' with plan for 1,001 new settler homes

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The Independent Online

Israel issued tenders yesterday for 1,001 new homes in West Bank settlements, despite its commitment to a building freeze under the international "road-map" for peace. It is expected to publish another 633 within the next few months.

Israel issued tenders yesterday for 1,001 new homes in West Bank settlements, despite its commitment to a building freeze under the international "road-map" for peace. It is expected to publish another 633 within the next few months.

According to the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot daily, Ariel Sharon's government is planning to invest 65 million shekels (£8m) in construction and to subsidise 50 per cent of the infrastructure costs. The programme was approved earlier, but then suspended by the Prime Minister. Israeli sceptics and Western diplomats suspect that Mr Sharon hopes to appease right-wing critics of his plan to evacuate 21 Gaza Strip and West Bank settlements by the end of next year. He faces a crucial meeting tonight of his 3,000-member Likud party convention.

Pinhas Wallerstein, a veteran settler leader, commented: "Sharon has no intention of building even one of these houses. This is ugly manipulation, a fraudulent ploy ahead of the Likud conference."

But Yariv Oppenheimer, director general of the Peace Now campaign, denounced Mr Sharon for "shutting the door in the face of the whole world." There was, he insisted, a clear commitment to freeze all settlement activity. "To issue tenders for more than 1,000 new units," Mr Oppenheimer added, "is very negative."

Peter Carter, number two at the British embassy in Tel Aviv, condemned the announcement as very unhelpful to both the road-map and Mr Sharon's disengagement plan. "We are very disappointed," he said.

Paul Patin, a spokesman for the American embassy in Tel Aviv, said: "Israel has accepted the road-map. We expect Israel to honour its commitments."

Although the road-map, drafted by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, calls for a total building freeze, Israel has its own interpretation. Mr Sharon contends that he is free to build for "natural growth" within the existing settlement boundaries.

A high-level Washington delegation is due to arrive in Israel soon to examine settlement expansion and the failure to evacuate illegal settler outposts, but American diplomacy is hamstrung by the fact that while it has never endorsed the Israeli reading, the Bush administration has acquiesced in it.

Most of the settlements for which new tenders were issued are close to the pre-1967 "green line" border. Israel hopes to keep them even after a final peace agreement. But the locations of some of the new tenders, such as the towns of Ma'aleh Adumim, Ariel and Kiryat Arba, are well inside occupied territory.

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