Construction of the first new Jewish settlement in the West Bank in a decade has been approved by a key committed, said an Israeli official on Thursday. Palestinians have been infuriated by the news and said that peace efforts could be crippled by the decision.
Ehud Barak, Israeli defence minister, remains the only hurdle, although he plans to approve the Maskiot settlement (map) within weeks, the official said, adding that Mr Barak had signaled to the national planning committee that it should authorize the plan.
Because the defence ministry did not officially announce that the settlement would be built in the Jordan Valley Rift, an arid north-south strip that forms Israel’s eastern flank with Jordan, the official spoke on condition of anonymity.
It has been in the pipeline for years, he answered when asked why Israel was moving ahead with the politically charged plan.
Israel froze the plan after international outcry, when it originally announced in 2006 that it would build Maskiot. But nine Israeli families settled in mobile homes at the site, earlier this year, and Palestinians claim it is part of a future state.
Around two dozens more families are waiting to join them, say settlers.
Israel has been accused by Saeb Erekat, Palestinian negotiator, of undermining U.S.-backed peace talks.
‘Harm the negotiations’
“This is destroying the process of a two-state solution” Erekat said. “I hope the Americans will make the Israelis revoke the decision. I think they can make the Israelis do this.”
Although the US Embassy made no comment, on her last visit to the region in June, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said settlement building “has the potential to harm the negotiations”.
Last year talks renewed, after a seven-year breakdown, and Israel promised not to establish new settlements in the West Bank. Though a goal of reaching a final peace accord by the end of the year has been set by both sides, since then they have scaled back their ambitions, partially because disputes over Israeli settlement have impeded progress on peacemaking.
Palestinians want the final deal to outline the formation of a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. Israel captured those territories in the 1967 Mideast war.
“Israel will stand by its commitments”, said Mark Regev, Israeli government spokesman, when asked to comment on the revival of the plan to build Maskiot. He also noted that final approval for the construction has not yet been given by Ehud barak.
Though he would not elaborate, Israel historically has interpreted its commitments on halting settlement expansion differently from the rest of the international community.
From military base to settlement
Although Israel promised not to relocate settlers withdrew from Gaza three years ago to the West Bank, the Maskiot community is made up of those settlers.
Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian president, briefly called off peace talks earlier this year, over continued Israeli construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Even though the building have sharply been criticised by the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said it hampers peace efforts, Israel has not been penalized by the U.S.
Decades ago, Maskiot had been established as a military base, and four years ago a religious school was set up there. But until February, no one had lived at the site.
That precisely is the manner with which many Israeli settlements have been established : they began as military points, gradually converted into fledgling communities, which gradually grow.
The settlers at Maskiot, like many others, are Orthodox Jews. They believe God gave the West Bank, the biblical heartland often called Judea and Samaria by Israelis, to the Jewish people.