Israeli government allowing West Bank settlements to grow

JERUSALEM — Peace Now charged this week that the Israeli government is encouraging Jewish settlement on the West Bank by awarding tenders for nearly 2,600 housing units.

Movement leaders said they will demand that Prime Minister Ehud Barak remove all the illegal hilltop encampments established since the signing of the Wye accord last fall and that he cancel all housing construction tenders for settlements released since the government came to power.

Peace Now said the tenders, awarded by the Ministry of Construction and Housing since Barak took office in July, were more than had been awarded annually during Benjamin Netanyahu's three years as prime minister.

The ministry argued that most of the 2,594 housing bids were near Jerusalem and fall under the "national consensus" as areas that would remain under Israeli control in a final peace settlement.

The tenders are for 461 units in Ma'aleh Adumim, 1,089 in Betar Illit, 594 in Givat Ze'ev, 10 in Otniel, 12 in Kiryat Arba, 178 in Karnei Shomron, and 185 in Har Adar.

Nabil Amr, the Palestinian Authority's minister for parliamentary affairs, called the granting of the tenders a fresh obstacle to the peace process and said the Palestinian cabinet would raise the matter at its weekly meeting today.

Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, said that "we will inform the whole world that it is destructive to peace."

Peace Now's Didi Remez was upset with the government.

"With Barak, we expected a freeze in building, or at least that the rate of building would be less than under Netanyahu. But for the government to promise change and carry on is preposterous."

Housing Minister Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party said the granting of permits was in keeping with government policy.

"We joined this government on the basis of [its] basic guidelines. The basic guidelines do not mention any freezing of construction," he told Israel Radio.

Agriculture Minister Haim Oron of Meretz said his party understands the needs of settlements in the West Bank but would oppose construction in excess of natural growth.

Oron told Meretz that it is not a matter of leaving the government.

"A mechanism was established to deal with these issues," he said, referring to a ministerial committee that will meet for the first time on Oct. 17 to discuss the current situation.

Meanwhile, at Adam, a secular settlement minutes from Jerusalem, about 80 housing units are for sale. A saleswoman who represents one of the contractors building there said many young couples had inquired, attracted by the affordable prices.

Asked what the status of the land may be with the final-status negotiations looming ahead, she said, "There's no reason for concern — the government wouldn't have approved the development of so many plots if it planned to give the land to the Palestinians."