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Peace Now and the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip (Yesha) finally found something they can agree on. They both claimed that the government's decision to publish tenders for West Bank housing Monday was motivated by election politics.
The building plans call for 228 new units in Betar Illit and Efrat, just outside of Bethlehem.
Both groups described the move as an attempt by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose new Kadima Party has endorsed a Palestinian state, to pander to the right and claim some of the Likud vote. But, while Peace Now said the decision highlights Sharon's efforts to establish "facts on the ground" in order to retain settlement blocs, the settlers' council called it "too little, too late."
"He wants to seem as if he's very generous, but he's not. He's not helping the settlers," said Emily Amrusy, spokeswoman for Yesha. She added that the West Bank has been slated to hold more Israelis according to development plans prepared long ago. She said these new tenders are only being advertised for settlements where "there's no dispute" because "they will still be part of Israel under any peace agreement."
But Dror Etkes, who heads the Settlement Watch Operation for Peace Now, implied that Sharon is in essence seeking to avoid dispute - or at least negotiations - in these areas. "Israel is trying to unilaterally build as much as possible in the settlements west of the barrier to annex them de facto," he said.
To Etkes, it seemed that Sharon had returned to his role as a chief architect of the settlement movement. Etkes accused Israel of violating its road map commitments to freeze settlement activity and noted that this initiative comes amidst election fervor.
"The assumption is that there will be much less media attention around it," he charged.
Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority, also condemned the move and urged US intervention.
Sharon spokesman Ra'anan Gissin said the Efrat and Betar Illit building projects had been in the works for five years, and both are communities that Israel plans to hold onto under a final settlement with the Palestinians.
"These are the large settlement blocs," he said. "They will be strengthened."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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