Israel to Add to West Bank Settlement

Coming a week after Sharon's visit to Bush's Texas ranch, the plan to build 50 new homes in Elkana raises eyebrows in Washington.

By Laura King

Los Angeles Times

April 19, 2005

JERUSALEM — Brushing aside an explicit U.S. call to refrain from expanding Jewish settlements, Israel on Monday disclosed plans to build 50 new homes in the northern West Bank.

Although the planned addition to the community of Elkana is relatively small, the disclosure came only one week after President Bush met at his Texas ranch with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and publicly urged Israel to avoid any new settlement activity.

Expansion of settlements is banned under the peace plan supported by the United States and known as the "road map," though the two countries differ on what constitutes improper activity on Israel's part.

The Sharon government argues that Jewish settlements are entitled to what it calls "natural growth" — populations that increase due to factors such as births or denser buildup that takes place within established settlement boundaries.

The White House said it would seek clarification from the Israeli government about the latest expansion plans.

"I think the president made his views very clear last week … that Israel should not expand settlements," said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, traveling with Bush in South Carolina.

McClellan noted that Sharon "reiterated his commitment to the road map" during his meeting with the president last week.

"The road map has obligations for both parties," McClellan said. "Israel should not be expanding settlements, and the Palestinian leaders need to act to dismantle terrorists' organizations."

Last week's meeting was preceded by an Israeli disclosure of a much larger development planned outside the West Bank's largest Jewish settlement, Maale Adumim. That blueprint calls for the construction of more than 3,500 housing units in a sensitive location, wedged in rocky hills between traditionally Arab East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.

Continued settlement activity by the Sharon government has left the Bush administration in a quandary.

U.S. strategy calls for propping up Sharon against raging opposition from Jewish settlers to the planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer. Residents in the 21 settlements in the seaside territory and four small communities in the northern West Bank are to be uprooted.

But even as the Bush administration applauds the withdrawal, U.S. officials do not want to give Sharon carte blanche to lay claim to additional territory in the West Bank. The Israeli leader has clearly signaled that it is his intention to retain large, established settlement blocs that lie close to the "Green Line," the de facto border that separated Israel from the West Bank before the 1967 Middle East War.

The Bush administration offered assurances to Sharon a year ago that it would support such communities becoming part of Israel in any peace settlement with the Palestinians. That position was essentially repeated at last week's summit, with Bush saying that "existing major Israeli population centers" in the West Bank would have to be taken into account when drawing the borders of a future Palestinian state.

Palestinians, though, fear that Sharon is using the U.S. desire to help along the Gaza withdrawal as a pretext to expand all settlements close to the Green Line. Elkana, south of the Palestinian city of Kalkilya, is less than three miles from the boundary.

The Palestinian Authority, already struggling against lawlessness in the West Bank and Gaza Strip coupled with growing political clout by the militant group Hamas, reacted to the latest Israeli expansion plan with dismay.

"We urge the Bush administration not to close its eyes, while focusing on the Gaza [withdrawal], to hundreds of housing units being added in West Bank settlements," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. "This is harming efforts to achieve the vision of a two-state solution."

Palestinians fear that, even if Gaza is handed over to them more or less intact, they could find themselves with "islands" of territory in the West Bank, dashing their hopes for a viable state.

Like most settlement expansion plans, the one for Elkana was disclosed with little fanfare. Word came in the form of a notice published by a relatively obscure government agency, the Lands Administration, inviting bids for the purchase of land slated for the construction of 50 single-family homes.

Israeli media quoted Lands Administration spokesman Yaakov Harel as saying that infrastructure for the Elkana development — roads, electricity and waterworks — had been largely completed, and that construction of the new homes was likely to start within three months.

The Maale Adumim development, by contrast, could be years away from construction, according to Israeli officials who described it as a long-term plan that still must clear various administrative hurdles.

The Gaza pullout plan has been more than a year in the making, and Sharon has thus far crushed legal and parliamentary opposition to the withdrawal. Polls have consistently indicated that about 70% of Israelis favor getting out of the territory.

However, the Israeli government is worried about a violent backlash if it tramples on the sensibilities of settlers and their supporters, most of whom are religiously observant.

Sharon indicated Monday that he might be prepared to delay the pullout by three weeks to accommodate a traditional Jewish mourning period commemorating the destruction of temples in ancient times, even though any change in the timetable flies in the face of advice given by his senior military commanders.

The idea of a delay to accommodate the mourning period was raised by Yonatan Bassi, the official who is charged with coordinating all aspects of the "disengagement" plan. Bassi is an observant Jew.

Under the interpretation of some rabbis, the moving of household goods would be forbidden during the 20 days preceding the fast day of Tisha B'Av, which falls this year on Aug. 15, under the Hebrew calendar. The pullout was to have begun around July 25.

A decision on the delay was expected today, but Sharon indicated that he would probably give his blessing.

Elsewhere, a Palestinian sniper wounded an Israeli soldier and a civilian contractor Monday in Gaza near the Egyptian border. A Palestinian militant group, the Popular Resistance Committees, claimed responsibility.

A spokesman for the group, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Abeer, said the attack was meant to avenge the deaths of three Palestinian teens who were shot by Israeli troops earlier this month close to the same spot.

Times staff writer Edwin Chen in Columbia, S.C., and special correspondent Fayed abu Shammalah in Gaza City contributed to this report.