Israel defies world with biggest land grab in years
ISRAEL faced international criticism yesterday after announcing that it would seize control of almost 1,000 acres of Palestinian-claimed land for the expected construction of what would be its largest new settlement in 30 years.
The US state department described the move in the Gush Etzion area close to Bethlehem as "counterproductive" and a spokesman said: "We urge the government of Israel to reverse this decision."
The decision by the cabinet was said by officials to be in response to the killing in June of three Israeli teenagers, who were abducted from a bus stop in the same area. Their deaths sparked a clampdown on the Hamas Islamist group behind the kidnapping and led to the 50-day war in Gaza, during which more than 2,100 Palestinians and 73 Israelis died.
Israel has been considering construction of a major settlement at the location, known as Gevaot, since 2000 as part of the continued expropriation of land on the occupied West Bank, which most countries regard as illegal under international law and see as an obstacle to the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
Last year, the government invited bids for the building of 1,000 homes on the site, which lies within a larger zone of land designated as a "settlement bloc", but the declaration that 988 acres were now officially being designated as "state land" puts that process firmly in motion.
The cabinet decision was welcomed yesterday by Davidi Perl, the mayor of Gush Etzion, who has for years lobbied and prayed for thousands of new homes to be built.
"It's not the wedding yet," he said, referring to the fact that the building plans had not yet been approved, "but it's the engagement."
At his office, located not far from the bus stop where the teenagers were abducted in June, he said: "The Arabs have to understand the consequences if they kill a Jew. They want us to go to hell, but we have to show them that we are here and we will stay here for ever."
The move was seen by some as an attempt by Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, to bolster public support after widespread domestic criticism that he had ended the Gaza war without fatally weakening Hamas.
Among Israelis who disagreed with the settlements decision yesterday was the country's justice minister, Tzipi Livni, whose Hatnuah party is a member of Mr Netanyahu's ruling coalition, and who is officially responsible for Israel's relations with Palestinians.
She told Israel Army Radio: "The answer to terror and murder is determined military action against terror."
The land appropriation was an "incorrect" response to the teenagers' killing, she said. "It is a decision that weakens Israel and damages its security."
Although she emphasised that the Etzion settlement bloc would be part of the state of Israel in any future agreement with Palestinians, she accused those who backed the new plan of "practising politics... at the expense of Israel's security".
The decision was denounced by the Palestinian Authority, which described it as another instance of "crimes against the Palestinian people and their occupied land", and by Egypt's foreign ministry, which brokered the Gaza ceasefire deal. It said the new settlement plan would have "negative consequences on the peace process".
Philip Hammond, the UK Foreign Secretary, said Britain "deplored" the expropriation.
Just a few miles from Gush Etzion in the Palestinian village of Wadi Fukin, village representative Ahmad Suqari said the decision to build such a large number of Israeli housing units would do irreversible damage to his community.
"At least half the residents here work in agriculture," he said. (© Daily Telegraph).