New Israel settlement expansion continues unabated
JERUSALEM - Israel has given final approval for 90 new homes in Beit El settlement near Ramallah in a move likely to spark tension ahead of a top-level visit by US President Barack Obama, officials and an NGO said Monday.
Hagit Ofran of the Peace Now settlement watchdog said the plans had been published for validation in an Israeli newspaper in what was the "final stage of approval", meaning construction of the new homes could begin "within a few days."
The plans were signed off by Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak in August but received the final rubber stamp on Sunday by the Civil Administration's planning committee, she said.
The move comes just days after the White House announced that Obama would make his first-ever visit to Israel as president on a trip expected to take place in late March.
The stalled peace process is one of three key issues which will be up for discussion. Talks broke down more than two years ago in a major dispute over settlements.
The Beit El construction plans were hurriedly put together as a compensatory measure for settlers who were evicted last year from Ulpana, an unauthorised settlement outpost on the outskirts of Beit El which was evacuated following a High Court ruling.
A Civil Administration spokesman confirmed the approval for the 90 units, saying they had been signed off by the political establishment.
"We're talking about the validation of a project which was already approved in August ... in the framework of orders from the political establishment after the High Court decision," he said.
Ofran said it meant the bulldozers could now get to work immediately.
"They can start building within a few days," she said.
The approval was pushed through despite the fact that Israel is currently between governments following last month's general elections, with coalition talks likely to continue for several more weeks.
"Even though there is not yet a new government in place they are still allowing settlement procedures to continue instead of putting them on hold which is a telling sign about this new government," Ofran said.
On Sunday, the defence ministry confirmed it had given the green light for the construction of 346 new settler homes in two settlements in the southern West Bank: 200 housing units in Tekoa and 146 in Nokdim.
The international community views all Israeli construction on occupied Palestinian land as a violation of international law, and the Palestinians have refused to return to peace talks while Israel builds on land they want for a future state.