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Israel eyes West Bank growth

More Israeli building, fresh Palestinian fighting may complicate efforts for peace talks.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 5, 2007



MASKIOT, WEST BANK

Tucked into a remote cluster of hills is a rather rare species these days: a new Israeli settlement taking shape.

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As advocates are keen to point out, there has been an Israeli presence here since 1982, including an army base and military prep school. Two decades ago, in 1986, Maskiot's plot of "state land" was given an approval to become a bona fide settlement.

For a smattering of reasons political or bureaucratic, it never happened, and Maskiot's existence was hardly known outside the 20 other small Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley. But last week, the Israeli defense ministry announced that it had authorized construction of 30 new homes here – for settlers who were evacuated from the Gaza Strip.

The decision confirmed a concern that some observers had about former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, which pulled 8,000 settlers from their homes in the Gaza Strip after Israel's 38-year-long occupation of the territory.

Skeptics wondered if Mr. Sharon would move many of the settlers from Gaza into the West Bank, a place which – in religious, historic, and strategic terms – Israel has always held in higher regard. Settler leaders in this region, in fact, claim that Sharon promised them he would relocate some of the Gaza evacuees here.

New push for peacemaking

Any move to allow new – or expand old – settlements in the West Bank could complicate efforts already under way to give Middle East peacemaking a fresh push.

On Thursday, in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarek, to discuss a potential deal on a prisoner release and restarting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, internecine Palestinian tensions appear to be worsening as kidnappings and shootings between armed gangs affiliated with Hamas and Fatah continued in Gaza and spilled into part of the West Bank.

Israel's Peace Now organization, a group that tracks Israeli settlement expansion, charged that any move to put Israelis in a new settlement over the Green Line (Israel's pre-1967 boundary) would be a mistake, and one which, like the settlements in Gaza, was likely to be removed in the long run.

"We're taking a place that was an abandoned military place and making it a civilian settlement," says Yariv Oppenheimer, a spokesman for Peace Now. "It's an extreme right-wing decision and it's not something we expected from this government. I don't think that the government should give in to the pressure of the settlers to live there. It's against the promises of the roadmap and promises to the international community."

Amid the controversy over the issue, Israeli officials said this week the decision is still under consideration.

"It's not a new site in any case, but given the sensitivity of the issue, it's being reviewed," says Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin. The Defense Ministry, which issued the permit a week ago, declined to comment. An official who asked not to be quoted said that a final decision has not yet been made.

Here in Maskiot, there is a sense that a new settlement – or at least a significantly expanded one – is not merely being considered, but is already taking root.

There are currently a few dozen young post-high school men living here, studying in a religious preparatory program before their induction into the army. Two of the families who were evacuated some 16 months ago from Gaza have already moved in; they refused to speak to a visiting reporter.

The families are two of at least 16 families who plan to settle here, and are part of a narrative that seems problematic for people of all political stripes. Moved out of Gaza in August 2005, the Israeli government never found a permanent community for them. And because their settlement in Gaza wasn't officially recognized by the government, they didn't qualify for some of the same relocation benefits other settlers did.

"This is my place now. My bones will be buried here," says Binyamin Rabinovich, as he was busy fixing a car. It's so remote that there's hardly any cell phone reception, and when there is, the phones pick up Jordanian rather than Israeli signals.

"I'm disappointed in our government, that they would agree to freeze this because of pressure from the US," he says. "The Land of Israel is ours and we need to develop it."

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