Mon, May 22, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Israel gives final approval for expansion of four Jewish settlements in West Bank

AP , BEITAR ILLIT, WEST BANK

Israel has given final approval in recent weeks to plans to expand four Jewish settlements in the West Bank, officials said yesterday.

The settlements slated for expansion lie within areas that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hopes to incorporate within Israel's final borders.

Olmert plans to withdraw from dozens of isolated settlements in the West Bank while beefing up large settlement blocs.

Othniel Schneller, a lawmaker with the ruling Kadima Party, said Israel's Defense Ministry signed orders months ago to expand the boundaries of Beitar Ilit and Givat Zeev, near Jerusalem, and of Oranit and Maskiot.

The expansions of settlement boundaries were the first in years, the settlement watchdog group Peace Now said.

The Defense Ministry, which oversees settlement activity, said the expansion orders were signed by former defense minister Shaul Mofaz.

But it said the ministry is "re-examining" the approvals under new defense minister, Amir Peretz, a moderate who took office this month.

Israeli media reports, however, said Peretz also has approved the orders.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat urged Peretz to rescind the orders.

"This act of expanding the settlements, is a choice for more obstacles and more problems and more violence. I really hope that the new government will stop this," he said.

The new expansion includes converting Maskiot, an army outpost in the Jordan River Valley, into a residential community, said Dubi Tal, a settler leader in the area.

About 30 families who lived in the Gaza Strip will move to the new settlement by next month, Tal said. Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, dismantling 21 settlements there, last summer.

Israeli officials committed prior to the withdrawal from Gaza that no new settlements would be established in the West Bank to accommodate evacuated Gaza settlers.

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