Israel Plans 1,000 New Homes in West Bank

The Israeli government issued bids Tuesday for 1,000 new homes in Jewish West Bank settlements, insisting the construction has Washington's tacit approval even though it violates a U.S.-backed peace plan.

U.S. officials said Tuesday they expected Israel to abide by the "road map" peace plan, which, among other things, calls for a construction freeze in Jewish settlements.

There has been growing tension between Israel and the United States in recent weeks over the West Bank settlements (search), both over ongoing construction in established communities and Israel's failure to dismantle settlement outposts.

However, there has been little public U.S. criticism of Israel.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to issue the bids comes as he faces a growing rebellion in his Likud Party (search). Party hard-liners oppose his plans to withdraw from the Gaza Strip (search) by 2005 and to bring the moderate Labor Party into his fragile coalition.

The party's Central Committee will vote Wednesday on a possible alliance with Labor.

The new homes will be built in six West Bank settlements — Karnei Shomron, Ariel, Geva Benyamin, Maaleh Adumim, Kiryat Arba and Beitar Illit. Sharon has said he wants to annex large West Bank settlement blocs to Israel as part of a future peace deal.

Housing Ministry spokesman Kobi Bleich said the six settlements earmarked for expansion are within "the Israeli consensus," meaning they are among those Israel plans to keep in any scenario.

In April, President Bush said it was "unrealistic" to expect Israel to withdraw from all the West Bank and dismantle large population centers in a peace agreement with the Palestinians. This was seen by Israel as a green light to continue expanding large settlement blocs.

Tzipi Livni, the acting housing minister, said she believes the construction approved Tuesday "absolutely fits in with the American declarations."

However, U.S. Embassy spokesman Paul Patin reiterated that Israel must honor its commitments under the peace plan.

"Israel has accepted the 'road map' and all its stipulations and we expect it to abide by them," Patin said.

The Israeli government adopted the peace plan in May 2003, but it never got off the ground, as both Israel and the Palestinians failed to fulfill their obligations.

Earlier this month, Sharon temporarily suspended the bids, asking that the construction plans be checked. Sharon's decision was seen, in part, as an attempt to defuse growing tensions with the United States over settlements.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat urged Bush to intervene on the settlement construction and pressure Israel to live up to its obligations.

"I think this [the construction] is destroying the road map," Erekat said.

The settlement watch group Peace Now (search) said the expansion contradicts Sharon's so-called plan of disengagement from the Palestinians, including the Gaza withdrawal.

"The boss has gone mad," the group said in a statement. "Rather than disengagement, Sharon is carrying out massive occupation in the West Bank."

U.S. officials, meanwhile, confirmed that the United States is sending a delegation to inspect the status of the unauthorized settlement outposts, and to push for the dismantling of the enclaves — an Israeli commitment under the road map.

The United States is displaying increasing impatience with Israel's slow pace in removing the outposts, which Washington and the Palestinians criticize as seeds of future settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians.

Some enclaves consist only of a few mobile homes, while others have permanent buildings and paved roads and have been hooked up to the electricity grid.

Patin said no date had been set for the American delegation's arrival.

Peace Now says the road map requires Israel to dismantle 53 settlement outposts — roughly twice the number it acknowledged in a list defense presented to American officials in June.

Israel has dismantled a few outposts, most of them uninhabited. Peace Now estimates that about 1,500 settlers live in the enclaves.

Also Tuesday, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz toured Gaza and said the army had begun preparing for a withdrawal.

In new violence Tuesday, two Palestinian militants affiliated with an offshoot of Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization were killed near a Jewish settlement in the southern Gaza Strip, a group spokesman said.

The spokesman for the Ahmed Abu Rish Brigades said the men were killed by Israeli forces while on "a holy mission" near the settlement of Atzmona.

Israeli military sources said soldiers fired at two men preparing to place an explosive device just outside the settlement.