World News

Israel has plans for 73,000 settlement homes

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli authorities have made plans for 73,000 new housing units in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, although only a fraction of the proposals has been approved, an anti-settlement group said Monday.

A labourer works on a construction site on the West Bank Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim August 26, 2008. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

The information, in a new report by Peace Now, indicated that Israel’s next government, which right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to form following last month’s election, could have a wide choice of projects for settlement expansion.

Peace Now, which along with the international community views Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank as an obstacle to a viable Palestinian state, said it collated details of housing plans from the government’s national mapping website.

The group said the data listed plans for 73,302 new housing units, of which 15,156 units have been approved.

It issued the report before the planned arrival later in the day of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is to hold talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

“If all the plans are realised, the number of settlers in the territories will be doubled” to 600,000, Peace Now said, cautioning such expansion could destroy chances for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The government has the power to decide not to carry out plans, or even to halt construction that has begun,” the report said.

Responding to the report, the Housing Ministry said Peace Now was making “a big deal out of nothing.”

It said the plans gave only a general picture of the potential for settlement building and actual projects and construction were conditional on policies set by the ministers of housing and defence.

Israel has been pressing ahead with construction of new homes in Jewish settlements within West Bank blocs it says it plans to keep in any peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu, whose efforts to form a middle-of-the-road government have been unsuccessful so far, has enough parliamentary support to put together a right-wing administration whose partners are likely to push for accelerated settlement building.

Such a policy is likely to put Israel on a collision course with the new Obama administration in Washington, which has pledged a swift pursuit of Palestinian statehood.

Netanyahu said his government would not construct new settlements but would, like its predecessor, build within existing ones to accommodate the “natural growth” of their populations.

A U.S.-backed peace “road map” calls for a halt to settlement activity, including natural growth, but George W. Bush did little to challenge Israel on the issue during his two-term presidency.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Dominic Evans