Israel approves start of new West Bank settlement


Israel has approved construction of more than 500 homes in the first stage of what is destined to become the fifth city for Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

After years of stonewalling, defence minister Ehud Barak approved advancing construction of 527 housing units in the Gevaot community, near Bethlehem, in what was hailed by local settlers as a major breakthrough. Although Israel regularly approves new building within existing settlements, approval for a new settlement is extremely rare.

Twelve families living in mobile homes currently populate Gevaot, which is located in the Etzion bloc, south of Bethlehem, an area Israel believes will remain under its control under the terms of any future peace deal with the Palestinians.

Etzion bloc council chairman Davidi Perl said the master-plan for Gevaot included 5,000-6,000 homes, making it the West Bank’s fifth settler city, with a projected population of about 25,000.

“The residents of the Etzion bloc support the Israeli government’s firm stance in the face of the condemnations and the pressure from within Israel and outside, which question our very right to build and grow strong in the land of Israel,” Mr Perl said.

Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh expressed Palestinian anger. “The settlers and the government of Israel should know that they will be held accountable.”

One option open to the Palestinians is to apply for membership of the International Criminal Court and seek to prosecute Israel, but Israel has warned of even harsher sanctions in the event of such a move.

The steps towards the creation of a new city follow an unprecedented surge in Israeli settlement activity over the past few weeks in response to last month’s United Nations decision upgrading the status of Palestinians to non-member observer. The government and the Jerusalem municipality have granted permits for thousands of new homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem neighbourhoods. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton yesterday criticised Israeli announcements to build in east Jerusalem. “This plan would cut the geographic continuity between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. I strongly oppose this unprecedented expansion of settlements around Jerusalem,” she said.

She said the EU was particularly opposed to construction plans that jeopardised the chance of establishing a viable Palestinian state with territorial contiguity, and put in doubt the possibility of Jerusalem being the capital of both states.