Sharon orders 1,000 homes in West BankIsrael's prime minister is trying to fend off critics of his plan to pull out of Gaza with an expansion of settlements around Jerusalem
Israel announced plans for 1,000 houses in the West Bank yesterday, accelerating the expansion of the settlements.
The pace of construction is in marked contrast to the slow pace of its much-publicised withdrawal from the settlements in the Gaza Strip.
Peace Now, an Israeli group opposed to the settlements, said a minimum of 3,700 houses were being built, in addition to 600 announced earlier this month and the 1,000 yesterday.
Earlier this month the Guardian revealed that big infrastructure projects were under way to prepare for a new settlement to link Ma'ale Adumim and Jerusalem, enclosing Palestinian east Jerusalem.
The announcement came on the eve of a meeting of Ariel Sharon's Likud party, whose right wing is hostile to the prime minister's plan to abandon Jewish settlements in Gaza.
Mr Sharon is attempting the difficult balancing act of moving ahead with the Gaza plan while holding together his coalition government.
Yariv Oppenheimer, of Peace Now, said Mr Sharon was talking of disengagement from Gaza but doing nothing, while increasing the occupation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank.
The total of 5,300 houses in the present wave of settlement expansion constitutes almost a house each for about 7,000 settlers who live in the Gaza Strip.
Mr Sharon said the Gaza Strip would be clear of Jewish settlements by the end of next year. Eighty families have already submitted their claims for compensation.
The road map peace plan, which was endorsed by Israel and the US in June last year, calls for all settlement activity to be frozen. But it is being ignored by Jerusalem and Washington.
A western diplomat said that Israel had never accepted limits on settlements and Washington had never insisted on them.
"The US tacitly agreed, via the exchange of letters and other meetings, that the Israeli position has validity," the diplomat said.
"The US showed that limited building was permissible. However, it is not clear that this scale of building is consistent with that understanding."
Other sources said President George Bush would not confront Israel in the run-up to the presidential election, but would not take kindly to Mr Sharon taking advantage of this situation.
Although the road map was formulated by the UN with the help of the EU and Russia, Israel has tried to ensure that it negotiates only with the US.
It has also reneged on undertakings to dismantle more than 100 illegal outposts in the West Bank, some of which consist of a few caravans.
Paul Patin, a US embassy official, said yesterday that a US delegation would visit Israel's unauthorised settlement outposts in the West Bank to push for their removal.
"Israel has accepted the road map and we expect them to honour their commitments. Having said that, it is now August 2004 and the commitments were made in June 2003," he said.
In Washington a state department spokesman, Adam Ereli, said last night: "Our concern is to determine whether these tenders are consistent with Israel's commitments [to freeze settlements]."
The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz described Mr Sharon's failure to dismantle the outposts as "pathetic and shameful".
Kobi Beich, a spokesman for the housing ministry, said all the 1,001 housing units whose construction was announced yesterday were within the boundaries of existing settlements. The boundaries are drawn to allow for expansion.
A spokesman for the Palestinian Authority president ,Yasser Arafat, denounced the plans and asked the international community to intervene.