Israel Planning to Build Hundreds of New Homes on Occupied Land
By Griff Witte
Jerusalem - Israel said Monday that it would build hundreds of new homes on occupied land it considers part of Jerusalem, just hours after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrapped up a three-day visit to the region by saying the peace process is "moving in the right direction."
The announcement of the new construction, the latest in a series of similar projects advanced by Israel in recent months, was likely to anger Palestinians. The issue also elicited criticism from Rice, who called on Israel to stop building in contested territory even before Monday's announcement.
"Settlement activity should stop - expansion should stop," Rice said at a news conference after meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Rice was on her second trip to the region this month. In recent days, she met with top leaders, trying to build momentum in negotiations that thus far have yielded little public progress. President Bush has said he wants to have a "signed peace treaty" by the time he leaves office next January.
After prodding by Rice, Israel said on Sunday it would remove 50 roadblocks out of nearly 600 in the West Bank that inhibit the movement of people and goods in the name of safeguarding Israelis from Palestinian attack.
Settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has been a persistent flash point in Israel's negotiations with the Palestinians, who claim the territory for their future state and want East Jerusalem as their capital.
Israel, which captured the land in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and considers an undivided Jerusalem its capital, says it has the right to continue building in Jewish neighborhoods in and around the city.
The new housing would consist of 800 apartment units in the northeastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev, which is within the expanded but internationally unrecognized boundaries of the city set by Israel after the 1967 war.
Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party in the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, also said Monday it had secured his backing for the construction of hundreds of new homes in the West Bank settlement of Betar Illit. A spokesman for Olmert could not confirm that report but said Israel is allowed to build in the settlement because it will be part of Israel under any future peace deal.
Israel has justified the expansions in part by citing a 2004 letter Bush sent to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in which he acknowledged "already existing major Israeli population centers" that would prevent a return to the pre-1967 boundaries.
Olmert on Monday told fellow members of his Kadima party that the expansion of existing settlements is acceptable. "All the reports of dramatic construction projects in the territories are not true," he said, "and it's not true that we're building in violation of commitments that were made."
The Israel-based advocacy group Peace Now released a report Monday saying that construction in West Bank settlements has boomed since the Annapolis peace conference four months ago. The organization documented new construction in 101 settlements.
"It's a slap in the face to the political process," said Hagit Ofran, head of the organization's settlement watch program. "This is the same mistake Israel has made since Oslo - building in the settlements and not understanding that it's a sign to the Palestinians that Israel does not want peace."
Ofran said the move hurts moderate forces such as Abbas's Palestinian Authority and strengthens more radical groups. "It plays into the hands of Hamas, which says there's no use talking to the Israelis because they'll just build more and more," she said.