Israel protesters intend to settle in West Bank

Israel claimed Thursday it will organize a settlement in the occupied West Bank and build 72 housing units, notwithstanding a U.S. peace “road map” for a halt to settlement expansion. Israel has also demanded $2.2 billion U.S. aid to implement its withdrawal plan from Gaza.

A spokesman for Israel's Housing Ministry, which invited bids for the project in a newspaper notice, said construction in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Betar Ilit, near the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, could start within a year.

"This is a provocation not only to the Palestinian people but also to the international community," Palestinian Planning Minister Ghassan al-Khattib was quoted as saying by Reuters.

Peace Now, the Israeli settler watchdog group, said the new project came in addition to a plan announced last year to build 600 housing units at Betar Ilit.

"It means that the policy of building in the territories continues despite the clear commitment in the road map not to build there," Yariv Oppenheimer, a Peace Now spokesman said.

The peace plan called on Israel to freeze "all settlement activity including natural growth of settlements". Israel says expansion of existing settlements is necessary to meet the needs of their growing populations.

Commenting on the 72-unit project, a Housing Ministry spokesman said: "It is a natural development of plans that were approved in the past within the existing borders of Betar Ilit."

US President George W. Bush had backed the withdrawal at a meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon early this year, Zaman reminds. "We will work together to implement the plan," Bush told Sharon. Sharon, determined to bring about the pullout, said Gaza no longer has economic or strategic importance for Israel. The country announced September 4 as the beginning of the withdrawal.

Radical Jews who are against the disengagement from Gaza continue protests. One of the leaders of Yesa Council Zviki Bar leading the demonstrators gathered in the city Wednesday said they would resist the withdrawal to the end. Those against withdrawal accuse Sharon of betraying their holy cause.

On the other side, Palestinians approach cautiously Israel's withdrawal plan, fearing that Israel might increase its power in the West Bank. Thirty-four Egyptian officialswent to Gaza yesterday to training the Palestinian forces to be stationed in Gaza following Israel's withdrawal.

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