JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz has approved 200 new homes for Jewish settlers in the West Bank, a government official said on Wednesday, despite a call by a U.S.-backed peace plan for a halt to such construction.
The official, from the Defence Ministry, said the 200 houses were planned for Maale Adumim, the largest Israeli settlement in the West Bank and that Mofaz also approved preparatory steps for expanding two isolated settlements, Bracha and Nokdim.
A Middle East peace "road map" charting reciprocal Israeli and Palestinian steps towards the creation of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, calls on the Israeli government to freeze "all settlement activity".
Israel says, however, it will continue to expand existing enclaves in the West Bank, occupied territory where some 245,000 Israelis and 2.4 million Palestinians live, to accommodate the "natural growth" of settlement populations.
The Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported Mofaz approved the construction plans in an apparent effort to win points from voters ahead of a Dec. 19 leadership election in the right-wing Likud party.
Mofaz, who opinion polls showed was trailing behind Benjamin Netanyahu in the Likud race, has since defected from the party to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon”s new centrist Kadima party in the run-up to a March 28 national election.
"This is not political," the official said about Mofaz”s decision to give the go-ahead for the new housing units.
The additional construction will likely anger Israel”s most powerful ally, the United States, which sees settlement expansion in the West Bank as contravening the road map.
Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war. It withdrew from Gaza in September in a move that Palestinians fear was a ploy to hold on to large tracts of West Bank land.