Outcry as Defence Ministry authorises 20 new houses in the West Bank

By Anshel Pfeffer, August 1, 2008

Settlers in the Jordan Valley are unfazed by the international outcry against the Defence Ministry's decision to authorise the building of 20 houses at a West Bank settlement.

In an unusually harsh statement, Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband has described it as "a real obstacle to peace" and complained directly to Jerusalem. The US State Department and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon also condemned the planned expansion at Maskiot, in the Jordan Valley.

But Jordan Valley council head Dubi Tal said: "We are used to such things. It's like all those foreign ministers are on automatic pilot and every time they hear about something moving here, they just put out a standard statement. It doesn't bother us."

Maskiot is the first official new settlement to be authorised by the government in more than 10 years. Despite its small size, it is a major concession to the settler movement by the government , which has insisted until now that it will allow building only within existing settlements.

The decision, which is still awaiting the final approval of Defence Minister Ehud Barak, was welcomed by the families who were removed three years ago from the Shirat Hayam settlement in the Gaza Strip in 2005 and were promised by the then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that they would be allowed to settle in the Jordan Valley.

Twenty-three families have asked to live in Maskiot, a former Nahal (IDF pioneer corps) outpost, and seven have been living there in temporary caravans for the past six months. There is also a pre-army academy at Maskiot.

"These past three years have been hectic," said Avinadav Vitkon, a father of four.

"After we were expelled from Shirat Hayam, we lived in two different places here in the Jordan Valley before being allowed to come here, and there is still a lot of infrastructure missing.

"Only last week we were connected for the first time to phone and Internet lines. Now, perhaps, we will be allowed to start building permanent homes."

Mr Vitkon preferred not to dwell on the speculation within settler circles that the authorisation was in exchange for assurances to the Defence Ministry from the Yesha Council of settlers that some of the illegal outposts in the West Bank would be dismantled.

"I don't like the idea of us giving up any point in Eretz Yisrael," he said. "But right now we are concerned mainly with building."

Even if the Yesha Council agrees to remove illegal outposts, it is doubtful whether it can deliver, as the outposts are populated mainly by hardline youngsters, opposed to any compromise with the government.
A report issued three years ago found that there were at least 105 illegal outposts - and probably many more.

Mr Sharon had envisaged building 180 new homes at Maskiot for the former residents of other Gaza Strip settlements, but those plans were abandoned due to American pressure.

The original plans for Maskiot were authorised by the government in 1982, and called for the building of 100 homes on the hilly outcrop overlooking the northern part of the Jordan Valley, just four miles south of the pre-1967 Green Line. But a lack of Israelis willing to live in the remote spot delayed the plans.

"Successive governments treated the Jordan Valley differently from the rest of the settlements," said Mr Tal. "Also, the Labour governments saw us favourably."

Ex-Defence Minister Amir Peretz was the first Labour leader to freeze new building in the Jordan Valley.
But now local settlers believe they are to be included in the settlement blocs which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has promised will be maintained in any peace deal with the Palestinians.


Facts and figures

Estimated number of settlers in West Bank and East Jerusalem

Number of Palestinians living in the West Bank, according to PA census

Number of new settlers last year, not including East Jerusalem

Rate of settlement growth, not including East Jerusalem

Last updated: 12:29pm, July 31 2008