Vita Bekker
The National
March 31, 2009 - 12:00am

Jewish settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank have stepped up the illegal construction of roads and housing in the past three months, taking advantage of the government’s distraction by the recent onslaught in Gaza and the national elections, an Israeli human rights group said yesterday.

Yesh Din, based in Tel Aviv, claimed that the projects were probably funded by the government.

Among the projects are the resumption of construction of a road to connect two Jewish settlements and built mostly on privately owned Palestinian agricultural land. The group said the road appeared to be one of the largest illegal infrastructure undertakings in the territory in the past six years.

None of the projects have obtained the necessary approvals from the civil administration, which oversees Israel’s activities in the West Bank, and from the defence ministry, said Yesh Din, which is Hebrew for “there is law”.

“The settlers are very good at identifying political chances to act,” said Dror Etkes, who monitors settlement expansion for the group.

“They realised that the period was right because the war in Gaza and the elections grabbed the attention of the media and the government.”

In December and January, Israel launched a 22-day attack in the Gaza Strip, which killed 1,417 Palestinians, according to Gaza medics. Israel held national elections in February and its media’s attention has since been focused on the right-wing Likud Party’s efforts to form a governing coalition.

Yesh Din’s findings may add to international concerns about Israel’s continued construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, territory the country occupied in the 1967 war and which the Palestinians want as part of their future state.

Such expansion may also add to recent reservations expressed by the United States and the European Union about the incoming Likud-led government, which is expected to be mostly composed of hardline and religious parties that oppose the creation of a Palestinian state and advocate the expansion of Jewish settlements.

Last weekend, the EU warned Israel of “consequences” if its new government did not accept the principle of a two-state solution.

According to Yesh Din, the largest recent illegal project involved a road connecting the established Jewish settlement of Eli to the much smaller unauthorised outpost of Hayovel, both of which are located 20km from the Palestinian city of Ramallah.

Eli, where about 2,800 Jews reside, is considered legal by Israeli law, while Hayovel, an 11-year-old outpost where about 200 others live, is not. Israel has said several times it planned to dismantle Hayovel.

However, both Eli and Hayovel, as well as all other Jewish settlements in the West Bank, are viewed as illegal under international law, which forbids the colonising of occupied territories with civilians from the occupying power.

Israeli support for the new road leading to Hayovel appears to contradict a cabinet decision announced last year to cut off funding to unauthorised outposts and their infrastructure.

Work on the route, slated to be 1.4km long and 25m wide, has been frozen since 2003, when bulldozers carved a dirt road through olive, almond and fig orchards belonging to the nearby Palestinian village of Qaryut.

But a week and a half ago, dozens of lorries brought gravel to smooth the road’s surface and prepare it to be paved, Mr Etkes said.

More than 90 per cent of the road is being constructed on Qaryut residents’ private property, he claimed.

“This is probably the largest pirate infrastructure project in the West Bank since the road map was announced in 2003,” Mr Etkes said. He referred to the long-stalled US-backed peace plan that calls on Israel to halt all settlement activity and for the Palestinians to rein in militants.

Mr Etkes said another sign of Israel’s tacit approval of the road is that the military in the past week has placed radar equipment along the route’s eastern shore overlooking Qaryut as a security measure to detect anyone approaching the area from the Palestinian village.

Such equipment is typically used by the army for the protection of Jewish communities located east of the barrier that Israel is constructing in and along the West Bank.

Israel’s defence ministry did not return a call seeking comment on Yesh Din’s findings.

According to Mr Etkes, his group received a faxed response from a civil administration official, stating that a “supervision proceeding” has been initiated to look into the road’s construction. Mr Etkes said such a reply was “standard” and usually meant that “they will not do anything about it”.

In a bid to prevent the construction of the road, Yesh Din said it submitted a petition to Israel’s High Court on Sunday in the name of the mayor of Qaryut, demanding the court issue an immediate injunction to halt the work.

Other illegal construction projects in the West Bank in the past few months include the development of smaller roads throughout the territory and the building of houses and stationing of caravans at two outposts that are unauthorised by the Israeli government, Mr Etkes said.

Furthermore, he added that in two areas, settlers have taken over private Palestinian agricultural land for their own use.


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