Israel yesterday deepened its defiance in the face of international pressure for a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and admitted it was building 700 housing units in the illegal outposts.
The housing minister and former Soviet dissident, Natan Sharansky, told the Guardian he had approved tenders for more than 700 houses at Maale Adumim - by far the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank, with more than 23,000 residents - and Alfei Menashe.
The move gives the lie to assurances by the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, on Sunday, that Israel accepts a central condition of a report on the Palestinian uprising by the former US senator, George Mitchell, which calls for a freeze on Jewish settlements.
Mr Sharansky said: "I don't think we should give any concession or prize for terrorist activity and that is what happens when we are asked to stop housing projects."
In his 32-page report, Mr Mitchell singled out the 145 Jewish settlements, considered illegal under international law, as one of the greatest obstacles to finding an escape from eight months of bloodshed.
That point was underlined yesterday when two Palestinian suicide bombers struck an Israeli army position and gunmen from both sides launched deadly attacks, casting a shadow over US-brokered talks. One man with explosives strapped to his body blew himself up at a checkpoint in the Gaza Strip, wounding two soldiers but killing only himself, the Israeli military said. Soldiers shot dead a second bomber who threw grenades but failed to detonate his load of explosives during his attack near a cluster of Jewish settlements.
The Palestinians insist that Israel must accept the Mitchell report - and freeze settlements - before a ceasefire.
Mr Sharansky shrugged off charges that he was imperilling peace efforts. Instead, he argued that the new houses were approved by the then Labour prime minister, Ehud Barak, last December, and the construction tenders were issued on April 5, well before Mr Mitchell called for a freeze.
But Peace Now, which campaigns against settlements, says the move was provocative. "Sharansky was looking for anything to show he was a settlement builder, and perhaps anything to torpedo a settlement freeze," said a spokesman, Didi Remez. "This was what he had on file ready to go."
Israel maintains it will limit the expansion of settlements, for which it has expropriated as much as 58% of Gaza and the West Bank, to "natural growth". "We believe people in Maale Adumim have the right to live there," Mr Sharansky said. "We have to take care of current needs, which means if people want to improve their conditions, or buy houses for their children, they can."
Peace Now says "natural growth" is fiction, meant to encourage migration to the West Bank and Gaza from within Israel proper. Although foundations are being laid for the 496 new units in Maale Adumim, work has yet to start at Alfei Menashe, largely because private builders complain they are unable to find any takers.
"You have 9,844 housing units in the end phases of construction, or lying vacant," said Gilad Ben Nun, who leads research on settlements for Peace Now. "You could freeze construction now and have enough housing units for natural growth for the next four years. What they are saying about existing demand is a blatant lie."
Settler groups argue that they are entitled to expand without limits because the Oslo peace accords deferred discussion on their fate until a final agreement. Nearly eight years later, and after Mr Barak built more than 3,000 houses in Jewish settlements, Palestinian officials admit they made a fatal error.
"Our major mistake was not to stop the settlements before moving on any major negotiations," said planning minister, Nabil Shaath. "It is absolutely ridiculous to negotiate with the occupier on land for peace, and allow him meanwhile to keep the occupation by force."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001