The Defense Ministry has approved the construction of 294 new homes in Betar Illit, the second largest West Bank Jewish city, located near the Gush Etzion settlement bloc.
Although the approval was granted at the end of April, it was first publicized in the last few days – including by Peace Now on Sunday – as part of an overall report on settlement activity.
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News of the Betar Illit units came as Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon traveled to another settlement bloc, Ma’aleh Adumim, and called for more building there, particularly in an area known as E-1.
“It’s clear what the significance is of Ma’aleh Adumim – first of all to Jerusalem – and to all of Israel. The future of Ma’aleh Adumim is the same as that of Jerusalem and the State of Israel,” said Ayalon.
According to the Peace Now report, the Defense Ministry had also approved the construction for a home for the elderly, and a commercial center, in the Efrat settlement, also located in the Gush Etzion bloc.
These approvals follow on the heels of authorizations for new construction in March of at least 390 housing units in West Bank settlements.
According to Peace Now, that 390 included: 200 in Modi'in Illit, 100 in Ariel, 40 in Ma’aleh Adumim and 50 in Kfar Eldad.
The approvals are part of a number of steps that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has taken to advance West Bank construction since the 10-moratorium on new-settlement building in September 2010, Peace Now said.
It includes depositing plans both for a religious seminary south of Efrat in January, and plans for 86 housing units in the Kiryat Netafim settlement in the Samaria region. Out of those 86 units, 75 have already been built. Once the plans are approved, the 75 homes would be legalized.
The moves to allow for continued settlement building come as Palestinians continue to insist that Israel must halt Jewish building in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, as a precondition for renewed negotiations.
Netanyahu has refused to cede to that demand.
On Monday in the Knesset, he clarified that Israel assumes that in peace with the Palestinians, “We agree that we have to keep the settlement blocs.”
Obama has since spoken of a peace deal based on the pre- 1967 line, with land swaps. It is believed that he means land within the settlement blocs, although he has yet to clarify this statement.
None of this, however, has helped settlements within the blocs, such as Efrat or Ma’aleh Adumim.
Efrat Council head Oded Revivi has not received building permits for the last decade. The two he received last week – for a senior and commercial center – were just a drop in the ocean compared to what he needs, he said.
Revivi added, however, that he hoped in light of Netanyahu’s comments about settlement blocs, that building permits would be forthcoming.
Mayor Benny Kashriel, whose West Bank city is located just east of Jerusalem, has also lobbied unsuccessfully for building permits.
Although a long-time member of the Likud central committee, he has not been helped by Netanyahu, who is the head of the Likud party.
His city is out of building permits, and the 40 he received pale in comparison to the authorization given to Modi'in Illit and Betar Illit.
At issue for Kashriel is the fact that the most likely place for his city to expand is E-1, an unbuilt area of the city. Successive prime ministers, including Netanyahu, have promised Kashriel that he would be able to build there, but have never made good on that pledge.
Palestinians have contested such construction, and have argued that it would destroy the contiguity of their future state. The United States has also pressured Israel not to build there.
On Sunday, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon (Israel Beiteinu) traveled to E-1, and called on the government to authorize construction there.
“We have to build in E-1. It is part and parcel of Ma’aleh Adumim. [The city] cannot survive without E-1, so there is no doubt that E-1 should be built and that building there – in no way or shape – contradicts any negotiations or a long-term agreement with the Palestinians,” he said.
Addressing the speech on the Middle East that US President Barack Obama gave last Thursday in which he said that Israel and the Palestinians should negotiate borders first, Ayalon said that such an approach was a mistake.
“The conflict with the Palestinians is not a territorial conflict – it goes much deeper unfortunately. We do not see yet Palestinian leadership that accepts our inherent right to be here,” Ayalon said.
He added that it was the Palestinians’ refusal to accept that Israel was a Jewish State that stands at the heart of the conflict.
As a result, Ayalon said, negotiations should start with the issue of refugees and security arrangements.
“If we look objectively into the situation, we believe that right now you do not have the basic elements that can bring about a permanent settlement,” he said. “So in the absence of reaching for the perfect, you should reach for the possible: a long-term interim agreement.”
On Monday, activists plan to head to E-1 to build an outpost there.