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(photo credit: IDF [file])
News that the army had signed expansion orders for three West Bank settlements at the request of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert broke Sunday 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.
No Olmert spokesmen were available on Sunday night. A spokeswoman for Peretz said the approval for expanding the three settlements had been initially authorized by former defense minister Shaul Mofaz. She said Peretz was currently "reexamining" the approvals that add land to the settlements of Betar Illit, Givat Ze'ev and Oranit.
It was also revealed that the IDF last week approved the creation of a new settlement in the Jordan Valley called Maskiot. It would be constructed at the site of an army outpost located outside the Green Line and would house 30 Gaza evacuee families, according to Dubi Tal, a community leader in the Jordan Valley.
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 agreement with the US under the road map to freeze settlement expansion, Oppenheimer said. "We are very disappointed with this action," he said.
In the case of Betar Illit, for example, Oppenheimer said that the new map approved by the army added 400 dunams to the settlement.
Betar Illit, a haredi community southwest of Jerusalem, has rapidly grown into one of the largest West Bank settlements, with roughly 30,000 residents. Thousands of new homes have been built over the past three years, and more homes, a supermarket and a mall are currently under construction in a new neighborhood on the western outskirts of the town.
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