JERUSALEM – Israel announced plans Thursday to expand a settlement near Jerusalem (search), its latest effort to consolidate control over parts of the West Bank even as it prepares to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.
The plan to build 72 housing units in the Betar Illit (search) settlement is liable to put Israel on a collision course with the U.S. government, which opposes settlement expansion. The announcement immediately angered Palestinians, who claim the West Bank as part of a future state.
Housing Ministry spokesman Kobi Bleich (search) said there was a consensus in the Israeli government to expand Betar Illit, a settlement on the outskirts of Jerusalem that is home to 20,000 people.
The announcement came just two weeks before Israel is to pull out of the Gaza Strip, removing all 21 settlements there as well as four isolated enclaves in the West Bank. About 9,000 settlers are to be uprooted from their homes.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says his plan will help Israel consolidate control over large settlement blocs where the vast majority of the 240,000 Jewish settlers live.
President Bush has acknowledged that Israel likely will hold on to the major blocs under a final peace settlement. But during a meeting with Sharon this year, Bush said he opposed any new settlement construction, even in existing communities, as a violation of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.
Asked why Israel was defying the United States, Sharon aide Asaf Shariv replied: "This is an existing area that will always be part of Israel."
Both American and Palestinian officials have said the Gaza withdrawal should be the first step toward reviving the peace plan, which envisions an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. The plan has been stalled since its launch in mid-2003.
In the Red Sea resort of Aqaba, Jordan, King Abdullah II told Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz that Israel must proceed with the peace plan after its withdrawal "to garner peace and guarantee the rights of all parties to ensure peace and stability in the region," according to a Royal Palace statement.
Palestinian Cabinet Secretary Samir Huleileh said the construction does not bode well for hopes the Gaza pullout would jump-start peace negotiations.
"The decision affirms that Sharon's step in withdrawing from Gaza doesn't mean coming back to the negotiating table and implementing the 'road map,"' Huleileh said. "On the contrary, his strategy is to consolidate settlement construction."
He called for further American pressure on Israel to reverse its decision.
U.S. officials were not immediately available for comment. But while the rhetoric against construction has been unequivocal, the United States has not threatened to punish Israel for its defiance.
This year, the Housing Ministry has issued tenders to build 235 housing units in settlements, most in the Jerusalem area, Bleich said. It also has revived a plan to build 3,650 new units in Maaleh Adumim, Israel's largest settlement, just outside Jerusalem.
Construction of that project has not begun, but Israeli officials deny settler allegations that U.S. pressure is responsible.
Jewish settler groups and their allies staunchly oppose the upcoming Gaza withdrawal, which is set to begin in two weeks. Settlers who do not leave their homes by Aug. 17 are to be removed forcibly by police and soldiers.
Settler leaders staged a mass protest against the pullout in southern Israel on Wednesday, but police barred them from marching into Gaza's main bloc of settlements, Gush Katif, to reinforce opposition to the evacuation.
About 200 pullout opponents managed to slip into Gaza overnight in defiance of a military ban, but most were quickly detained, police said.
The protest, like one last month, fizzled in its second day. Settlers said Thursday they would continue their protests on a lower level over the weekend and prepare for mass demonstrations again next week.
"There will be fewer people here now. It is like a wave, ebbing and flowing, but next week the wave will swell again," settler spokesman Hilik Navon said. "But all the time we will push to get to Gush Katif, that is our goal."
Settlers and their supporters, having failed to block the pullout through the courts and parliament, have resorted to infiltrations and rallies as their main means of protest. So far, the protests have proceeded without violence, but security forces are bracing for possible clashes before and during the withdrawal.
Some residents, wanting to avoid any confrontations, have begun surrendering their weapons, issued by the government for defense against Palestinian militants.
Residents of the Gan Or settlement handed back their army-issue M-16 rifles and emptied ammunition from their pouches Wednesday night. A second settlement, Netzer Hazani, is due to hand in its government-issued arms later Thursday, settlement security director Yoram Sror said. The effort did not affect privately held weapons.
Meanwhile, some 10,000 Palestinians, hoisting Palestinian flags and dancing in the streets, rallied at the parliament building in Gaza City on Thursday to celebrate Israel's upcoming Gaza withdrawal.
"After 38 years of ugly occupation, they are leaving and they will never come back," Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia told the crowd.
Qureia urged restraint during the withdrawal.
"The world is watching us to see how we are going to behave," he said. "We promise to convey a civilized image for our people."
The celebration Thursday coincided with what would have been the 76th birthday of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died in November.