Shas vows more settlement construction

Yishai: The need for housing in Jerusalem is great, requests to halt construction are illegitimate.

Olmert Yishai walk 224.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Olmert Yishai walk 224.8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Construction of housing projects in several large settlement blocs will be authorized, while others already have the green light, according to Shas politicians, who took credit Tuesday for having broken a freeze on new West Bank construction. The news of additional new homes comes amid harsh criticism levelled at Israel for Sunday's cabinet decision to authorize the 750-unit Agan Ha'ayalot project in the Givat Ze'ev settlement, north of Jerusalem, located 5 kilometers over the Green Line. It also comes ahead of Thursday's visit by US Lt.-Gen. William Fraser, who is charged with monitoring compliance with the road map peace plan that, among other things, calls on Israel to halt settlement activity. US Vice President Dick Cheney, who is due to arrive in Israel next week, is also expected to react harshly to settlement construction, which Palestinians have said is destroying the possibility of a two-state solution. But standing in Givat Ze'ev, as Palestinian laborers worked on the new buildings, Shas Party leader Eli Yishai pledged construction would continue. "You can't freeze building in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, where there is a great need for housing," said Yishai, whose haredi party is a member of the coalition. Requests by the international community to halt construction were "illegitimate," said Yishai. "If we can't build, then we can't negotiate. If this activity brings an end to the talks, then that is just," he warned. Yishai said he expected the Defense Ministry to approve a number of projects in the haredi settlement cities of Modi'in Illit and Betar Illit, as well as in Ma'aleh Adumim, which has a mixed Orthodox and secular population. The three cities, all of which are located a short distance beyond the Green Line, are among the largest Jewish population centers in the West Bank. In addition, according to a Shas spokesman, a number of projects in the settlements of Ariel, Efrat, Sha'arei Tikvah and Elkana have been approved or are about to be approved. The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday obtained a list of some of these projects signed by Defense Ministry settlements adviser Eitan Broshi. A spokesman for Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he could not verify the list's authenticity but added that he did know that some projects had been authorized. A quick check with some of the settlement leaders showed, however, that they were unaware that they had received or were about to receive permission to build. Tthe largest project proposes to construct 288 housing units in Elkana, three kilometers across the Green Line. For the small settlement of some 3,000, which has not received permission to build in the past eight years, this project would have significant impact. But the head of Elkana, Yehuda Cohen, said he had received no notification that the project had been approved or even that it was pending approval. Ariel Mayor Ran Nachman, whose city is listed as having been granted 48 housing permits, said the information was misleading. The project was approved in September and then frozen in November in advance of the Annapolis conference, said Nachman. To the best of his knowledge, he said, it was still frozen. It was years, he said, since his city had received permission to build. As a result, growth in Ariel has stopped, said Nachman. One of the few exceptions had been a youth center, which was funded with donations from abroad, he said. But once it was built, he said, the government has refused to allow it to be connected to utilities. The 48 units were just a small fraction of what was needed, Nachman said. He accused Shas of a public relations "spin" that made it appear as if the party had advanced settlement construction, when it fact, it was still frozen. His words were echoed by the Pinchas Wallerstein, the director-general of the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. "There is nothing there that was not already authorized," said Wallerstein, who said Shas's actions had more to do with coalition politics. Ma'aleh Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel said the only construction permit he had received recently was for a structure that would house a synagogue and a nursery school. It came, he said, only after he threatened to build illegally. Although building was still going on in his city, it was based on old permits. He had not received new ones, he said, in more than a year. But on Tuesday, in an almost completed apartment in Givat Ze'ev, Yishai along with party members and Shas's MK Shlomo Benizri and Communications Minister Ariel Attias, celebrated their success. They laid out two tables with cake, fruit, wine, coke and herring. In the mid-afternoon, with the view of a nearby Arab village to their rear, they recited the afternoon prayer. The marketing head of the Givat Ze'ev project, Hanoch Kas, shook Yishai's hand and thanked him. Construction on the apartment they stood in, along with 199 others had already been started when the project was frozen several months ago. On Sunday, the Prime Minister's Office along with the Construction and Housing Ministry gave contractors permission to finish those units as well as to begin work on 330 others. The officials also promised to authorize the rest of the structures at a later date. Hanoch showed Yishai a map of how the finished project would appear. "Will you invite me to the house-warming party?" Yishai asked. "Without a doubt," responded Hanoch. Barak, who is Labor chairman, is expected to face criticism at Wednesday's Labor Executive Committee meeting over his acquiescence to construction in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. Top Labor officials have been quiet on the issue until now, with the only criticism from within the party coming from Peace Now general-secretary Yariv Openheimer, who ran for a Knesset seat with the party in the last election. "Labor should be acting as a counterweight to Shas in the government, but they are not even trying, because they are afraid of losing centrist voters by moving too far to the left," Openheimer said. "Labor is afraid to be the Meretz of Kadima, so they are moving to the right of Kadima and letting Shas win the fight." Peace Now will demonstrate against the government on Purim late next week to send a message that the ministers are really right-wingers masquerading as peaceniks. The Prime Minister's Office this week reiterated that Israel had the right to build in the settlement blocs that it believed would be retained in a final status agreement with the Palestinians. But it did not comment on the possibility of more construction projects. Foreign Minister spokesman Arye Mekel said Israel's policy on construction in the settlements was based on the following four principles: * There will be no establishment of new settlements. * There will be no appropriation of land for settlement construction. * There will be no expansion of existing settlements beyond the originally approved master plan of each community. * Economic incentives to residents of existing settlements in Judea and Samaria have been canceled. Mekel said the government viewed this policy as fulfilling Israel's commitments under the road map and as in line with the understandings discussed at the Annapolis conference in November. The road map called for Israel to "immediately dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001," and to "freeze all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)." Herb Keinon contributed to this report.