MKs Okay New West Bank Homes, Despite Vow to Freeze Settlements

Panel gives preliminary okay more than year after Israel halted plans for 180 new homes, at U.S. request.

A key panel of lawmakers on Thursday approved 20 new housing units at Maskiot in the West Bank, Israel Radio reported, despite a 2007 pledge to the United States to halt construction at the site.

Jerusalem agreed to hold off on plans to build 180 new homes in the settlement, as part of a general freeze on Israeli construction in the West Bank.

But the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee has now given approval for the construction of the housing units and Defense Minister Ehud Barak is slated to grant authorization soon.

About two dozen residents of the former Gaza Strip settlement of Shirat Hayam moved into Maskiot last year.

Maskiot was legally established in 1982, housed an army unit and a school and has had civilians living there for several years. Israel planned in 2006 to build within its confines homes for Gush Katif evacuees.

There was no immediate government response to the report, which is certain to raise the ire of Palestinian and United States leaders, who have been pushing Israel to freeze construction in the settlements as part of the road map peace plan.

Israel has promised not to establish new settlements and refrain from construction in its existing communities in the West Bank.

Still, the government has approved construction in areas of East Jerusalem past the Green Line. Although these areas are heavily surrounded by an Arab population, Israel does not consider them settlements.

"Twenty units in the Jordan Valley is significant, as there are only 1,000 ([or Israelis] in the entire Jordan Valley," Dubi Tal, head of the area's local council, told Israel Radio.

The Peace Now movement responded to the news by saying, "capitulation to the settlers" would kill chances for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and "eventually drag us to a bi-national state."

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday Israel's intention would violate agreements reached in negotiations to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ban's spokesperson Michelle Montas said, "The secretary general has stressed many times before that settlement construction or expansion is contrary to international law and Israel's commitments under the road map and the Annapolis process."

The Jerusalem District Planning and Construction Committee earlier this month approved the construction of 1,800 new housing in Har Homa and Pisgat Ze'ev, two neighborhoods over the Green Line division.

The plan, which still requires approval from Jerusalem's local committee, includes the construction of 920 new housing units in Har Homa and 880 units in Pisgat Ze'ev.

Such expansion goes against the official stance of the U.S. government, which opposes construction in East Jerusalem.