Israel plans to build new Jewish settlement in West Bank

A key committee has approved a new Jewish settlement in the West Bank, an Israeli official said Thursday. The impending construction of Israel's first new settlement in a decade infuriated Palestinians, who said settlement building cripples peace efforts.

The only hurdle that remains is the approval of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who signaled to the national planning committee that it should authorize the plan to build the Maskiot settlement and that he would approve it within weeks, the official said.

He spoke on condition of anonymity because the Defense Ministry did not officially announce the settlement would be built in the Jordan Valley Rift, an arid north-south strip that forms Israel's eastern flank with Jordan. Asked why Israel was moving ahead on this politically charged plan he replied that it has been in the pipeline for years.

Israel originally announced in 2006 that it would build Maskiot, then froze the plan after it provoked an international outcry. But earlier this year, in a wildcat move, nine Israeli families settled in mobile homes at the site, which Palestinians claim as part of a future state.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused Israel of undermining U.S.-backed peace talks.

"This is destroying the process of a two-state solution," Erekat said. "I hope the Americans will make the Israelis revoke the decision. I think they can make the Israelis do this."

The U.S. Embassy had no comment. But on her last visit to the region in June, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said settlement building "has the potential to harm the negotiations."

When talks renewed last year after a seven-year breakdown, Israel promised not to establish new settlements in the West Bank. The two sides set a goal of reaching a final peace accord by the end of the year, but have since scaled back their ambitions, in part because disputes over Israeli settlement have impeded progress on peacemaking.

Palestinians want the final deal to outline the formation of a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. Israel captured those territories in the 1967 Mideast war.

Asked to comment on the revival of the plan to build Maskiot, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said, "Israel will stand by its commitments," and noted that Barak has not yet given final approval for the construction.

He would not elaborate. But Israel historically has interpreted its commitments on halting settlement expansion differently from the rest of the international community.

The Maskiot community is made up of settlers Israel evacuated from Gaza when it quit that territory three years ago. When it withdrew from Gaza, Israel promised not to relocate evacuated settlers to the West Bank.

Earlier this year, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas briefly called off peace talks over continued Israeli construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has sharply criticized the building, saying it hampers peace efforts, but the U.S. has not penalized Israel.

About two dozen Israelis moved this year to Maskiot despite a government decision last year to freeze plans to build a settlement there. The Israelis had been evacuated from a Gaza Strip settlement when Israel withdrew from the territory in 2005.

Settlers say around two dozen more families are waiting to join the wildcatting settlers already at Maskiot.

Maskiot had decades ago been established as a military base, and four years ago a religious school was set up there. But no one had lived at the site until February.

Many Israeli settlements have been established in precisely that manner, beginning as military points that are gradually converted into fledgling communities that gradually grow.

Like many settlers, those at Maskiot are Orthodox Jews who believe God gave the West Bank _ the biblical heartland Israelis often call Judea and Samaria - to the Jewish people.