JERUSALEM – Israel has approved a new settlement in the West Bank to house former Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, officials said Tuesday, breaking a promise to the U.S. to halt home construction in the Palestinian territories.
Construction in the northern West Bank town of Maskiot began months ago, but the project only received final approval from the Defense Ministry last week, said Dubi Tal, head of the Jordan Valley regional council.
Saeb Erekat, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the construction and urged the government to revoke its authorization, saying it violated the spirit of cooperation inaugurated by a meeting Saturday between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
"What message are they trying to send?" Erekat asked.
The settlement will house 23 families who were evacuated when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip last year, and will eventually house 100 families, Tal said. "I estimate that within two or three weeks the foundations for temporary housing will begin," he said.
Olmert has signaled in recent weeks that he is ready to make broad territorial concessions to the Palestinians under a final peace settlement, but he has also said he wants Israel to retain large settlement blocs. The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, as part of a future independent state.
Under the stalled, U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, Israel pledged to freeze all settlement expansion, while the Palestinians promised to crack down on militants. Neither side has followed through.
"The U.S. view on settlements remains unchanged," said Geoff Anisman, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. "The U.S. continues to urge both sides to meet their road map obligations and to avoid taking steps that could be viewed as predetermining the outcome of final status negotiations."
Saturday's Olmert-Abbas summit sought to build on momentum from an Israeli cease-fire with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which took effect last month. Olmert made a series of gestures to the moderate Palestinian leader, offering to lift some West Bank checkpoints and unfreeze hundreds of millions of dollars in withheld tax funds.
On Sunday, Olmert indicated he might release some Palestinian prisoners in the coming days, softening his long-standing opposition to such a move.
Despite the truce, Gaza militants launched seven rockets into Israel on Tuesday, hitting a street in the town of Sderot and seriously wounding two 13-year-old boys, Israeli officials said. The Islamic Jihad militant group claimed responsibility for all the attacks.
Militants have launched about 60 rockets since the truce was declared, and Israeli officials have warned their patience is waning.
"Israel has been displaying restraint, but this restraint will not continue indefinitely while Israelis continue to be attacked," said David Baker, an official in Olmert's office.
Security officials said Defense Minister Amir Peretz urged Olmert late Tuesday to reconsider his policy of restraint in the face of the rocket barrages.
Meanwhile, Israeli troops shot and seriously injured a Palestinian near the fence separating Israel and the Gaza Strip. Palestinian officials said the man was a farmer working near the fence. The army said two Palestinians were attempting to sabotage part of the fence and ignored warning shots before troops opened fire, hitting one in the legs.
In an effort to push forward with peace efforts, Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, will meet next week in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik, an Israeli government official said.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting had not been officially announced, did not say what day it would take place.
Egypt has played a major role in mediating between Israel and the Palestinians, and has been trying to negotiate the release of an Israeli soldier captured by militants linked to Hamas, the militant group that controls the Palestinian parliament and Cabinet and is a rival to Abbas' Fatah.
The rivalry between the two Palestinian groups has broken out into open street battles in Gaza in recent weeks.
Jordanian leaders have invited both Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas for talks in Amman in an effort to bridge the divide. Negotiations over forming a national unity government broke down last month, and Abbas has threatened to call early elections.
Jordan's Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit told reporters Tuesday that his country "has specific ideas to help the two sides to reach a unity government solution." He did not elaborate or say when the meeting would take place.
Haniyeh said Tuesday that he planned to accept the invitation. "We hope this will be a blessed opening for national unity."