Israel to expand West Bank settlements


Israel announced plans today to expand two Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank despite a ban on such construction in a US-led plan for peace with the Palestinians.

The Housing Ministry published tenders inviting contractor bids to develop 150 plots for single family homes in Beitar Illit settlement. A further 78 plots were offered in Givat Zayit, part of the settlement of Efrat.

The US-led peace "road map" requires a freeze on expansion of settlements in occupied land where Palestinians seek statehood. The Palestinians have also failed to meet their own obligation under the plan to crack down on militant groups.

Beitar Illit and Efrat are part of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, which Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has vowed to keep under any final accord with the Palestinians.

US President George W. Bush has said Israel could expect to keep some settlements under any such deal.

Palestinians say this would deny them a viable state in the West Bank, where some 245,000 settlers live among 2.4 million Palestinians, and imperil efforts to restart peace talks.

Israel quit the Gaza Strip, another area sought by the Palestinians, in September after 38 years of occupation.

"The Israeli government has suspended negotiations, contacts and the peace process. The only thing that is still allowed to go on is the settlement activities. This undermines the peace process," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

The US embassy spokesman could not be reached for comment. Figures from the Israel Lands Administration, a government agency, showed 999 new housing units were marketed in the West Bank from January to November. This compares with 1,075 units for the whole of 2004.