- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2002

JERUSALEM The Israeli government agreed yesterday to build nearly 1,000 houses in Jewish settlements near Jerusalem, sparking protests from Israeli peace groups and Palestinian officials.

The 957 proposed houses, which Israeli settlers insist would be located within established communities, will expand five settlements to prepare for what the government describes as the "natural growth" of the existing population.

Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are one of the main causes of Palestinian anger against Israel and are opposed by Israel's Labor Party, part of the coalition government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

However, the construction approved yesterday is in an area outside Jerusalem that both Labor and Mr. Sharon's Likud party agree should not be turned over to the Palestinians.

In Washington, the State Department declined to comment on the expansion. However, the United States has strongly backed the plan of a commission headed by former Sen. George Mitchell to end the violence.

A key element of the Mitchell blueprint is a halt to any expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.

A Palestinian human rights group named Law said that more than three-fourths of the new houses could be on Palestinian land.

More than 200,000 settlers live in about 160 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, built since the territories were seized in the Six-Day War in 1967.

Officials of Israel's Peace Now movement, which has long opposed the settlement policy, said the expansion raised questions about Israeli Defense Minister and Labor Party leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who has to approve all proposed construction in the territories.

"Ben-Eliezer's conduct on this issue raises serious questions concerning his integrity," Peace Now director Moria Shlomot said in a statement.

Mrs. Shlomot said Mr. Ben-Eliezer was acting against the wishes of the vast majority of Israelis who want the settlements dismantled.

But Ezra Rosenfeld, spokesman for the militant Settlers' Council, played down the significance of the number of new homes, saying it would make little difference politically.

"Most of these units will be in areas over which there is consensus among the parties," he said.

"The expansion of Jewish communities and the ability to control additional areas will bring security because no terror can get a foothold in these areas," Mr. Rosenfeld said. "It has become quite evident in the last 20 months that the Palestinian Authority is a terrorist organization, so it is crucial to limit its ability to grow geographically."

Last week the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said Israeli settlers exerted control over nearly half of Palestinian territories through a strategic placement of a few communities.

The development was further splintering the West Bank and isolating major Palestinian towns, it said.

Last month, the U.N. Human Rights Commission adopted a resolution expressing grave concern at continuing Israeli settlement activities, including the expansion of existing settlements.

"All these actions are illegal, constitute a violation of the Geneva Convention relative to the protection of civilians in time of war, and are a major obstacle to peace," the resolution said.

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