By Joel Greenberg
Special to the Tribune
October 24, 2003
JERUSALEM -- The Israeli government published plans Thursday to build more than 330 new homes in two large Jewish settlements in the West Bank, despite a requirement in an American-backed Middle East peace plan to freeze all settlement activity.
The peace plan, known as the road map, has stalled in recent weeks amid resurgent violence, with neither side moving to carry out its provisions and the Bush administration scaling back its involvement in the peace effort.
A Housing Ministry advertisement in the Haaretz newspaper invited bids for construction of 153 homes in Karnei Shomron, southwest of Nablus, and 180 in Givat Zeev, near Jerusalem.
Earlier this month, the government published similar tenders for construction of 600 homes in two other Jewish settlements, drawing international criticism.
"The Housing Ministry builds across the country according to the policy and basic guidelines of the government," a ministry spokesman said.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was for decades an architect of Israel's settlement drive, and many of the ministers in his Cabinet support settlement building.
Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes the settlements and monitors their construction, says the government has published tenders for 1,627 new homes in settlements this year. There are nearly 150 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
One of the stipulations in the road map is that "the government of Israel freezes all settlement activity [including natural growth of settlements.]"
However, Raanan Gissin, a Sharon spokesman, said "everybody has a different interpretation of that," and Israel's reading of the road map allowed for construction within the boundaries of existing settlements.
"This is not a political issue," Gissin said of the tenders issued Thursday. "It doesn't have anything to do with the road map. We will not build new settlements, we're not expanding the settlements beyond existing boundaries, we're not confiscating land. You cater to current needs in existing communities."
The road map also requires Israel to take down unauthorized outposts built by settlers, but after the government removed several of the encampments last summer, it made no further moves to dismantle them.
Israeli officials say the first priority under the road map is that the Palestinian Authority break up and disarm militant groups that have killed hundreds of Israelis in bombing and shooting attacks.
"Have they frozen all terrorist activity?" Gissin asked.
The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, urged the United States to intervene to stop construction of the settlement homes and of a barrier Israel is building in the West Bank to block suicide bombers.
"Settlements and walls are the No. 1 obstacle to peace," Erekat said.
Palestinian officials assert that continued settlement building and the barrier, which slices into the West Bank to include some Jewish settlements on the Israeli side, block the emergence of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state. The road map outlines steps to a peace agreement and a Palestinian state in 2005.
President Bush has called the barrier "a problem," and American officials have warned that it prejudges the outcome of future negotiations. A United Nations resolution passed Tuesday demanded the dismantling of the barrier, which in some sections consists of a concrete wall and in others a steel fence.
But Israel's deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said Wednesday that construction would continue.
In another development Thursday, masked gunmen from Islamic Jihad killed two Palestinians accused of being informers for Israel at the Tulkarem refugee camp in the West Bank and exhibited their bodies in the main square, witnesses said.
Before the execution-style killings at dawn, the gunmen showed camp residents videotape of the two men confessing to having helped Israeli security forces.
In further violence, Palestinian attackers killed three Israelis and wounded two others early Friday after infiltrating a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, Israeli officials said.
No group claimed immediate responsibility for the violence in Netzarim, located southwest of Gaza City and the focus of other infiltration attempts.
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