Defense Minister Ehud Barak has authorized the construction of hundreds of housing units in the settlements of Efrat, Betar Ilit and Karnei Shomron.

The permits, sent via Barak's adviser on settlement issues to the Civil Administration in the West Bank, allow for the marketing of 294 housing units in Betar Ilit, 40 housing units and a commercial center in Efrat, and more homes in Karnei Shomron.

Barak authorized the permits three weeks ago. The permits were issued after a period in which Barak refused to approve most building requests in the settlements, even after the construction freeze expired last September.

The issuing of the permits was not announced officially; the move was revealed yesterday by the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement. For its part, Barak's office said a handful of construction permits were awarded to communities inside the large settlement blocs to allow normal life to continue.

Sources in the Civil Administration told Haaretz that the main motive for the move was political, saying it was an attempt by Barak to ease settler pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he makes goodwill gestures toward the U.S. administration and the Palestinian Authority.

A source close to Barak said the defense minister "doesn't believe in the freeze anyway, just as he doesn't believe in frenzied construction in the territories. At the end of the day there will be [a peace] agreement, and the fact that there will be more buildings on the other side of the border won't change anything. The Palestinians will be able to use them."