Thursday, August 5, 2004; 9:05 AM
JERUSALEM - Israel has begun work on a major expansion of its biggest West Bank settlement in a move certain to draw concern from a visiting White House envoy on Thursday, officials said.
New construction would link Maale Adumim to Jerusalem and could cut Palestinians off from the city they seek to share as the capital of a future independent state. It would flout a U.S.-backed "road map" for peace.
News of the project drew fury from Palestinians, who suspect Israel will strengthen its hold on big chunks of the West Bank while trying to distract attention with a plan to uproot smaller settlements in the occupied Gaza Strip next year.
Political sources said Sharon recently put into action a decade-old plan to develop 3,750 acres (1,500 hectares) of West Bank land linking Maale Adumim to Jerusalem. Some roads had already been marked out and sewage pipes laid, they said.
The latest storm over Maale Adumim followed revelations this week that Sharon had approved 600 new housing units for the suburban-style settlement. The details of the new expansion looked much bigger.
Maale Adumim's mayor said house building in the new area could begin in mid-2005, just as Sharon is due to begin removal of Gaza Strip settlements under a plan to "disengage" from almost four years of conflict with the Palestinians.
Maale Adumim already has nearly four times as many residents as the 8,000 Jews who would leave the Gaza Strip.
"Within about half a year the planning in the Construction and Housing Ministry will be completed, such that the residential blueprint can be submitted to the defense minister for approval," Mayor Benny Kashriel told Maariv newspaper.
The United States has criticized the plan for building more houses at Maale Adumim and asked Israel to abide by an undertaking not to expand settlements on land it captured from Jordan and Egypt in the 1967 Middle East war.
White House envoy Elliot Abrams would raise the issue with Sharon aides Thursday, U.S. officials said. All settlement expansion is meant to be halted under a peace "road map" that has been stymied by violence. The international community regards the settlements as illegal. Israel disputes this.
"This is a flagrant violation of the 'road map' and the promise made by the Israeli government to the Americans," Palestinian Negotiations Minister Saeb Erekat told Reuters.
Israeli officials have pointed at the Palestinians' failure to rein in militants, another requirement of the road map.
Sharon astounded fellow Israeli right-wingers with his plan to remove the Gaza settlements and four of 120 in the West Bank, but he is firm on keeping all of Jerusalem. Arab East Jerusalem was annexed in a move not recognized internationally.
In the Gaza Strip, Israeli troops lifted a month-long siege of a northern town that Palestinian militants had used as a base for launching rockets into Israel.
Violence in Gaza has surged as militants try to portray any Israeli pullout as a victory for their nearly four-year-old uprising. Israel wants to smash the groups before any withdrawal.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah, Cynthia Johnston in Gaza