The Israeli defense ministry has approved the construction of a new settlement in the occupied West Bank, for the first time in more than 10 years, a spokeswoman said yesterday.
"The ministry has given its green light for construction of 30 houses, in conforming with the promise given by the previous defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, to rehouse residents of some settlements in Gaza who were evacuated in 2005," a defense ministry spokeswoman told AFP.
The decision marks the first time since 1992 that the Israeli authorities have officially authorized the construction of a new settlement in the occupied West Bank, the anti-settlement Peace Now watchdog group said.
Previously the Israeli authorities have approved the expansion of existing settlements in the West Bank.
In 2005, Israel dismantled all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and withdrew troops and settlers from the territory.
According to a spokeswoman for the group representing the West Bank settlers, the new settlement will be called Maskiot and built in the northern Jordan Valley.
Construction is due to begin within weeks and is expected to take "two to three years" to complete, the spokeswoman Emily Amrusy said.
"There is no reason to rejoice at this decision as it is nothing more than the application of a promise made to those expelled from Gush Katif," she added, referring to the largest Gaza settlement bloc dismantled last year.
Peace Now slammed the decision.
"This is a veritable scandal, all the more so that this decision was taken by (Defense Minister) Amir Peretz," who heads the dovish Labor party and is himself a former Peace Now activist, the group's director general Yariv Openheimer said.
"This decision goes contrary to the roadmap, as well as the program of the government. Moreover, it has not received approval from parliament," Openheimer said. Under the terms of the internationally drafted Middle East peace roadmap launched in June 2003, Israel was meant to freeze all settlement construction in the West Bank.
Israel will also ease restrictions on Palestinian travel in the West Bank and cargo transfers to and from Gaza, an effort by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to boost moderate President Mahmoud Abbas in his bitter struggle with the militant Islamic Hamas.
On Monday, Olmert approved streamlining checkpoints and removing some West Bank roadblocks "to strengthen moderate (Palestinian) elements," according to a statement from Olmert's office. Olmert has already pledged to pump US$100 million in frozen tax money into Abbas' coffers and indicated he might release some Palestinian prisoners.
Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said inspections would be eased at 16 checkpoints, and 27 unmanned roadblocks would be removed.