- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2006

JERUSALEM — Israel has approved a new settlement in the West Bank to house former Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, officials said yesterday, breaking a promise to the United States to halt home construction in the Palestinian territories.

Construction in the northern West Bank town of Maskiot began months ago, but the project only received final approval from the Defense Ministry last week, said Dubi Tal, head of the Jordan Valley regional council.

Saeb Erekat, an aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the construction and urged the government to revoke its authorization, saying it violated the spirit of cooperation inaugurated by a meeting Saturday between Mr. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

“What message are they trying to send?” Mr. Erekat asked.

The settlement will house 23 families who were evacuated when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip last year, and will eventually house 100 families, Mr. Tal said. “I estimate that within two or three weeks the foundations for temporary housing will begin,” he said.

It marks the first time since 1992 that the Israeli authorities have officially authorized the construction of a new settlement in the occupied West Bank, Agence France-Presse reported, citing the anti-settlement Peace Now activist group.

Previously, the authorities have approved the expansion of existing settlements in the West Bank.

Mr. Olmert has signaled in recent weeks that he is ready to make broad territorial concessions to the Palestinians under a final peace settlement, but he has also said he wants Israel to retain large settlement blocs. The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, as part of a future independent state.

Under the stalled, U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, Israel pledged to freeze all settlement expansion, while the Palestinians promised to crack down on militants. Neither side has followed through.

“The U.S. view on settlements remains unchanged,” said Geoff Anisman, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. “The U.S. continues to urge both sides to meet their road-map obligations and to avoid taking steps that could be viewed as predetermining the outcome of final-status negotiations.”

The Olmert-Abbas summit Saturday sought to build on momentum from an Israeli cease-fire with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which took effect last month. Mr. Olmert made a series of gestures to the moderate Palestinian leader, offering to lift some West Bank checkpoints and unfreeze hundreds of millions of dollars in withheld tax funds.

On Sunday, Mr. Olmert indicated he might release some Palestinian prisoners in the coming days, softening his long-standing opposition to such a move.

Mr. Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, will meet next week in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, an Israeli government official said.

Egypt also has been trying to negotiate the release of an Israeli soldier captured by militants linked to Hamas, the militant group that controls the Palestinian parliament and Cabinet and is a rival to Mr. Abbas’ Fatah.

The rivalry between the two Palestinian groups has broken out into open street battles in Gaza in recent weeks.

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