May 18, 2009 / 9:47 AM / 10 years ago

Israelis move to expand a West Bank settlement

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel has moved ahead with a plan to expand a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, an official said on Monday, pursuing a project the United States has already condemned as an obstacle to peace efforts.

Israeli contractors visited the site called Maskiot on Sunday, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in the United States for talks with President Barack Obama, who is expected to call for a halt to settlement expansion.

David Elhayani, head of the Jordan Valley regional council that oversees Maskiot, confirmed to Reuters he had published a tender last week for contractors to launch infrastructure work for 20 homes at what was once a military base.

Some contractors visited the site in the northern West Bank on Sunday, Elhayani said, citing approval that Israel’s Defense Ministry gave the project last July. A ministry spokesman did not immediately respond to a message asking for comment.

“It’s a process that will take months, to prepare infrastructure before we can build. We are proceeding in orderly fashion,” Elhayani said in a telephone interview.

Nabil Abu Rdainah, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said the plan was a “message of defiance” from Israel to the Obama administration and its efforts to revive peace talks.

“The Palestinian position is clear: There will be no resumption of peace talks as long as settlement building continues,” Abu Rdainah said.

Yariv Oppenheimer, an official for the Israeli settlement watch group Peace Now, alleged that settlers had deliberately timed publication of the tenders to focus a spotlight on the controversial issue during Netanyahu’s talks with Obama.

The initial settlement plan was drawn up several years ago, Oppenheimer said. “But they brought developers there yesterday (Sunday) morning. The timing is significant.”

The former U.S. administration of George W. Bush had termed the Maskiot project unhelpful. Washington has pressed Israel since 2006 to halt the project, which it says is in violation of the peace “road map” for a Palestinian state beside Israel.

Netanyahu, a pro-settler right-wing leader, has stopped short of embracing the two-state solution and says the Palestinians must first formally recognize Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

The Palestinians say settlements, which the World Court has deemed illegal, could deny them a viable and contiguous state in the territories Israel captured in a 1967 war.

Half a million Jews live in more than 100 settlements Israel has built since the 1967 Middle East war and occupation of the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem, territory in which close to 3 million Palestinians live.

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