Barak approves master plans for 4 settlements

Defense minister paves way for new construction in Nofim, Eshkolot, Rotem and Hemdat; Peace Now says gov't capitulating to settler pressure.

Itamar 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Itamar 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In a rare move, Defense Minister Ehud Barak paved the way for more settlement construction on Monday when he approved master plans in four West Bank Jewish communities – Nofim, Eshkolot, Rotem and Hemdat.
The move comes on the eve of the meeting planned Tuesday in Washington between President Shimon Peres and US President Barack Obama.
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The Defense Ministry’s settlement adviser, Eitan Broshi, said that the move simply adjusted a technical oversight.
“We are talking about already existing legal settlements, located on state land,” Broshi said.
“These are not outposts,” he added. “This is a statutory change and is not a shift in policy.”
No new building permits were issued, and the Defense Ministry would have to issue more authorizations before construction could begin as a result of the plans’ approval, he said. The move merely strengthens the legal standing of these communities with respect to state funding, utilities and expansion projects in existing homes, he explained.
But Peace Now executive director Yariv Oppenheimer said he feared that the plans would pave the way for more settlement construction.
“We will now have to study these plans carefully” to assess their impact, Oppenheimer said.
“Once again the government is capitulating to settler pressure, ignoring international relations and Palestinian rights,” he declared.
Jordan Valley Regional Council Chairman David Lahiani wasn’t waiting to study the matter; he was certain the plans’ approvals meant he could build.
In the small Jordan Valley settlement of Rotem, where 25 families live in caravans because the lack of a master plan has kept them from building permanent homes, residents opened wine bottles and celebrated on Monday night.
Lahiani said the approvals had helped restore the settlers’ faith in the future, both for their community and for the Jordan Valley, even though it would still take time for them to have real homes.
In the Hemdat settlement, Lahiani said, the approval would allow for construction of 25 homes that were frozen over five years ago because the community lacked a master plan.
He noted that unlike other regions of the West Bank, the Jordan Valley had construction permits and could build; the issue, he said, has been more of a statutory one.
But Samaria Regional Council head Gershon Mesika was not celebrating. The approval of the master plan for the Nofim settlement, he said, helped the owners of already existing homes, but did not allow for any immediate construction in that community.
He noted that other settlements in his region – such as Itamar, where five members of the Fogel family were killed last month – also needed master plans.
South Hebron Hills Regional Council head Tzvika Bar-Hai agreed that the plan for the Sansana neighborhood of the Eshkolot settlement, near the pre-1967 border, hardly marked the end of the road when it came to new construction, and even then one was talking about maybe 30 homes.
It allows plans for construction to move forward, “but there is still a long way to go,” he said.
Oppenheimer said that in addition to four master plans for these settlements, the Defense Ministry was also working on approving plans for the settlements of Kiryat Netafim and Halamish, which would authorize illegal building in both communities.
Peace Now is in the midst of a legal battle to halt illegal building in the two West Bank settlements.
“Barak’s message to the settlers is clear – they can continue to build illegally, and sometime down the line, whether it be five or 10 years later, eventually their construction will be authorized,” Oppenheimer said.