Ariel settlement building - Moti Milrod - August 2011
A building site in the settlement of Ariel last year. 277 new homes were approved in the town. Photo by Moti Milrod
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Palestinians reacted furiously yesterday to Defense Minister Ehud Barak's decision to approve construction of 277 new housing units in Ariel.

This is the largest number of new units approved in a single settlement since the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was established in March 2009.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, told Reuters that the decision constituted "an Israeli attempt to obstruct and destroy what is left of any effort to revive the peace process.

"Once again, these Israeli settlement measures represent a strong reason calling on us to go to the United Nations and the Security Council to request membership for the State of Palestine and to halt these Israeli measures," Abu Rudeineh said.

Of the new units, about 100 are earmarked for families evicted from the settlement of Netzarim as part of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The remainder will be sold to the general public.

The units will be built in a neighborhood in the center of Ariel, in line with a plan approved back in the 1990s. The neighborhood was slated to contain 460 units, but the Housing Ministry stopped marketing land for the project after the intifada erupted in 2000, leading to a sharp drop in demand. As a result, less than half the units were actually built.

Some years later, demand picked up again, but at that point, the government postponed marketing the land out of diplomatic considerations.

Now, Barak has decided to green-light the construction, which is expected to take about three and a half years. The first step will be for the Housing Ministry to issue a tender to market the land to contractors.

To date, the Netanyahu government has approved very little construction in the West Bank: It okayed 492 units in various settlements two years ago, and announced plans to approve another 500 in March, following the murder of five members of the Fogel family in Itamar.

However, it has yet to market land for the latter.

Defense Ministry officials said Barak had approved the new units in Ariel as part of the government's policy of enabling "normal life" in the settlements.

Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman welcomed the decision, for which he had lobbied energetically.

The government agency responsible for resettling the evicted Gaza settlers had also pressed Barak to approve the new housing, and it, too, welcomed the move. The United States found reports of new Israeli settlement building plans deeply troubling and counterproductive to the U.S. effort to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, said a statement from the U.S. State Department. "These kinds of actions are counterproductive to the resumption of direct negotiations," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.