The government is stepping up construction in the West Bank settlements and acting to legitimize at least one illegal outpost it has pledged to demolish, Haaretz has learned.

The Defense Ministry recently contracted an architect to resume construction of the Givat Sal'it outpost in the Jordan Valley, in what is seen as a step toward legitimizing the outpost. Givat Sal'it is one of 26 communities the Sharon government had promised the United States it would tear down nearly 10 years ago.

The resumption of construction seems to be part of a current trend in settlements. The Defense Ministry's Civil Administration is due this week to discuss advancing plans for building 475 housing units in the West Bank settlements of Yakir, Oranit and Etz Efraim. This is in addition to the housing units approved in settlements in exchange for the quiet evacuation of the illegally-built Ulpana neighborhood in Beit El.

Givat Sal'it was built in September 2001 near the Mehola settlement, in memory of Sal'it Shitreet who was shot to death by Islamic Jihad gunmen. Some 20 families live in it now.

Step toward legitimacy

In 2002 the World Zionist Organization hired an architect to design and expand the neighborhood. In 2003, Sharon had undertaken, as part of the "road map" peace plan, to demolish Givat Sal'it and 25 other outposts built after March 2001. Only three of those outposts have been torn down since then.

In 2004, the WZO retracted the deal with the architect to expand Givat Sal'it. That same year, a report on settlement construction commissioned by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon found that Givat Sal'it is located on state land, but that the road to it and its fence are on private Palestinian land.

In the early days of Netanyahu's current government, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement that it was necessary to keep Sharon's commitment to tear down the 26 outposts. But defense officials say the Obama administration has lost interest in these commitments and as far as the U.S. president is concerned, there is no difference between an outpost and a settlement.

Two weeks ago, the Defense Ministry, acting in coordination with the WZO, hired an architect to resume the Givat Sal'it expansion plans. David Elhayani, head of the Jordan Valley regional council, told Haaretz that "10 years after the murder it's time to legitimize the status of the outposts that were authorized by the government. Sal'it is on state land and I hope we start building there in a year's time."

Peace Now director general Yariv Oppenheimer said that "the government's priorities remain loyal only to the settlements. Not to public housing, not to assistance to the homeless, only to expanding and legitimizing outposts and settlements in the territories."

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