- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2006

From combined dispatches

HELSINKI —The European Union yesterday strongly criticized Israel’s approval of a new settlement in the occupied West Bank for the first time in more than 10 years, describing it as illegal under international law.

“The Presidency of the European Union expresses its deep concern at the news that the Israeli government has authorized the construction of the Maskiot settlement in the West Bank,” said a statement by Finland, which currently holds the EU presidency.

“Such unilateral actions are also illegal under international law,” the statement said.

It said the development ran contrary to the commitment undertaken by Israel in the so-called “road map” plan, which originally called for the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005, side by side with Israel.

The plan was sponsored by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

In Washington, the Bush administration, in a rare criticism of the Jewish state, said yesterday that if Israel proceeds with construction of a settlement on the West Bank, it would violate its peacemaking obligations.

State Department spokesman Gonzalo R. Gallegos said, “The establishment of a new settlement or the expansion of any existing settlement would violate Israel’s obligations under the road map.”

“The U.S. calls on Israel to meet its road map obligations and avoid taking steps that could be viewed as predetermining the outcome of future negotiations,” Mr. Gallegos said.

“We are seeking an explanation from the Israeli government regarding this development,” he said.

In defending the construction plan, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy said that “the settlement is not a new one.” It was legally established in 1982, housed an army unit and a school, and has had civilians living there for several years, said spokesman David Siegel.

The plan is to build within the confines of the existing settlement, he said.

The EU statement in the Finnish capital also said the timing of the Israeli announcement was particularly unfortunate as the authorization had come shortly after a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“The Presidency of the EU urges the parties to refrain from all activities that would endanger the cease-fire and the hopes the meeting between Olmert and Abbas have raised.

“Extending the cease-fire to the West Bank must be an urgent goal,” the statement said.

The Israeli Defense Ministry gave the go-ahead for the settlement in the northern Jordan Valley, a spokeswoman said.

Construction of the Maskiot settlement is scheduled to begin within weeks, said a group representing the settlers.

The Palestinians slammed the decision, saying it went against agreements reached between Mr. Abbas and Mr. Olmert during their meeting Saturday, their first in six months.

Last year, Israel dismantled all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and withdrew troops and settlers from the territory, ending a 38-year occupation.

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