Barak defends new construction in West Bank settlements
October 6, 1999
From staff and wire reports
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Under fire from Palestinians for continuing to allow settlement activity in the West Bank, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday urged Palestinians to reduce their criticism of his policies and resolve their differences at the negotiating table.
He defended the granting of some 2,600 housing tenders in existing settlements since taking office in July and appeared to leave open the possibility that the projects might be overtaken by a permanent peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
On Tuesday, the lead Palestinian negotiator of the final peace talks, Yasser Abed Rabbo, accused Barak of taking "crazy decisions" on settlement building in the West Bank and said his policies could bar the way to serious negotiations.
"I don't think that such talk helps in any way to promote the peace process," Barak told a joint news conference with visiting Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson.
"All disputes between us and the Palestinians should be solved around the negotiating table. We have quite a burdened schedule that should lead to agreement long before any of the projects that have just been announced are over," he said.
The ongoing settlement activity irks Palestinian leaders, who say it violates a promise made by assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
"No one single house to be added. Not any expansion to any settlement," Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat said he was told by Rabin.
New neighborhood to double size of settlement
On a hillside near the biggest Jewish settlement in the West Bank, Maale Adumim, workers have begun building infrastructure for a new neighborhood that would link it to Jerusalem and essentially double its size. The move enrages Palestinians who say the overall expansion prevents them from building their own communities.
Palestinians and a human rights group asked Israel's Supreme Court on Wednesday to halt the expansion. The court said it would announce its ruling at another date, but did not issue a restraining order to stop the expansion.
Attorneys for Maale Adumim and the state of Israel argued the future of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza is a political issue, to be decided in negotiations with the Palestinians, not in court.
However, the Israeli human rights activist who is representing the Palestinians, Avigdor Feldman, told the court Maale Adumim is a special case because its expansion is aimed at increasing Jerusalem's metropolitan area. When one of the judges remarked that he was trying to get the court to rule on the issue of expansion of all West Bank settlements, Feldman replied, "Of course."
"This is a political matter," Justice Theodore Or, the chief of the three-judge panel, said during the hour-long hearing. That's consistent with the Supreme Court refusal to rule on issues concerning Jewish settlements in the West Bank, labeling it a political issue, not a legal one.
Activist sees little change
Feldman says under the new government, little has changed regarding Jewish settlements.
"We don't see any conceptual change in the attitude towards the occupied territories," Feldman said.
Israeli settlement watchdog groups claim that in its first three months in office, the new Israeli administration has authorized new construction at a rate exceeding that of the previous government led by hard-line former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But Barak said those housing tenders had been approved long before he took office and that most were around Jerusalem in large settlement blocs.
"I have made it very clear that according to my judgment and according to my plan, most of the settlers in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) will be living in blocs of settlements under our own sovereignty even in permanent status," he said.
He also repeated that he would not allow right-wing settlers to grab territory of their own accord. More than a score of settler outposts sprung up in the final months of Netanyahu's government as activists staked a claim to land.
Correspondent Jerrold Kessel and Reuters contributed to this report.
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