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(photo credit: Courtesy)
At Maskiot in the Jordan Valley, bulldozers have cleared the top of a hill and work crews have laid foundations for four houses. New trees have been planted on the edges of the settlement.
Twenty families, all from the former Gaza settlement outpost of Shirat Hayam, are expected to move there in coming weeks, said regional leader Dubi Tal.
The Kinarti family from Shirat Hayam has moved into a temporary concrete block home in Maskiot. A knock on the door produced a man with a large skullcap who refused to comment on the construction of his new home but said he's originally from Shirat Hayam.
Another future Maskiot resident, Yossi Hazut, said he was settling in the Jordan Valley to help determine the borders of the State of Israel.
"I don't think there is even one Israeli who thinks that the Jordan Valley is not important," said Hazut, who is living in a nearby community until his house is ready. "God willing, many of us from Shirat Hayam will live in Maskiot."
The news that the army had approved the construction of Maskiot came on the heels of the news that the IDF had signed expansion orders for three West Bank settlements at the request of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Both programs were revealed a week and a half ago as Olmert headed for the US for his first meeting with President George W. Bush since taking office.
According to a military source, Olmert himself approved the move, but Defense Minister Amir Peretz said he was studying the matter.
Olmert has stated publicly that he wants to hold on to part of the valley along the Jordanian border, but has not said whether he intends to keep the settlements there. Bush has in the past opposed settlement activity in the West Bank.
However, defense officials said that Peretz, who has criticized settlement construction, cannot rescind the orders, but would consider changing settlement policy.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat urged Peretz to rescind the approvals.
'This Israeli government should stop this, not approve this,' he said. 'This act of expanding settlements is a choice for more obstacles, more problems and more violence.'
MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima) told The Jerusalem Post that the army approval for three of the settlements was a technical matter. He said that last year prime minister Ariel Sharon had asked Mofaz to correct mistakes that had been made in setting the boundaries of the three settlements that are likely to be within Israel's final borders.
The map of the settlements was redrawn, he said. Mofaz approved it and sent it on to the army so that it could recheck the map and sign off on it as well, said Schneller.
But Peace Now spokesman Yariv Oppenheimer slammed the move. He said it expanded the size of the settlements and created 'new facts' on the ground.
Such a move goes against Israel's agreement with the US under the Road Map to freeze settlement expansion, Oppenheimer said. 'We are very disappointed with this action,' he said.