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Founding of West Bank Settlement Angers Washington, Divides Israel

Moving clandestinely, but heavily protected by the Israel Defense Force, the Gush Emunim settlers movement has swiftly erected the beginnings of a new West Bank settlement called Revava.

In doing so, the settlers seem to have accomplished far more than laying down infrastructure and setting up a collection of mobile homes.

Their action could jeopardize relations with the United States and has already further polarized the nation over the delicate issue of peace with the Palestinians, dividing even the ruling Likud party.

The move is being perceived as a deliberate affront to the United States, which has repeatedly warned Israel that it considers the expansion of Jewish settlements in the administered territories to be an obstacle to peace.

It brought a swift response from Washington, where White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters Tuesday that, “this action, if verified, does not change the U.S. position on Israeli settlement activity.

“Settlements are an obstacle to peace and their continuation does not contribute to the development of a peace process, which we have all been looking for” Fitzwater said.

He said the U.S. ambassador to Israel, William Brown, has asked the Israeli government for clarification.

Revava, approved by the government in 1982 but never built, was originally scheduled to be inaugurated Thursday, the 43rd anniversary of Israel’s independence.

Instead, the Gush Emunim saw to it that the settlement went up three days before Secretary of State James Baker was due in Jerusalem on his second visit in less than two weeks, aimed at continuing crucial talks on the peace process with Israel’s leaders.

‘A MESSAGE TO BAKER’

A Gush Emunim leader, Daniella Weiss, was even quoted as saying, “This is a message to Baker.”

In Washington, Fitzwater said that when the secretary of state was in Israel last week, he told the Israelis “that continued settlement activity would hinder progress toward agreement on other issues related to the peace process.”

The White House spokesman said at the start of his briefing that reports had been received that Gush Emunim brought trailers “to a site in the occupied West Bank where no settlement, existed before.”

The site is near the main highway crossing the Samaria region, northwest of Jerusalem.

Journalists were kept away by declaring the entire area a closed military zone.

Although the army complained that the timing of the settlement was not coordinated with the military authorities, it cooperated fully.

Troops were deployed in force to protect the intensive bulldozing and infrastructure work that went on through the night, illuminated by powerful are lights.

By morning, there were 14 mobile homes on the site, and another 16 were expected to be set up in the next few days. Gush Emunim said they were financed by Israel’s Housing Ministry.

The Knesset opposition factions decided Tuesday to submit a no-confidence motion against the government because of the settlement drive.

Shevah Weiss, deputy whip of the Labor Party’s Knesset faction, charged that “the government is leading the people astray. While the foreign minister is leading a peace process, the housing minister undercuts it,” Weiss said.

He was referring to Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, who was vowing to intensify the settlement drive while Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister David Levy were locked in crucial talks last week with Baker.

CREATING AN ‘IMAGE OF DECEPTION’

Knesset member Yossi Sarid of the Citizens Rights Movement said building a new settlement three days before Baker’s arrival was tantamount to planting a bomb on the secretary’s plane.

Health Minister Ehud Olmert, a Likud moderate, said the settlement could have been delayed for a few days, “because the worst thing is to create an image of deception.”

According to Olmert, open settlement activity, even at the cost of controversy with Washington, is preferable to clandestine operations.

But different opinions were heard from Likud’s coalition partners on the right.

Geula Cohen of Tehiya pointed out that the expansion of settlements was one of her party’s conditions for joining the Shamir government.

“Any additional settlement, precisely at this time, is not an obstacle to peace, but rather an obstacle to the dreams of our enemies to set up a Palestinian state,” said Cohen, who is deputy minister of science and energy.

(JTA correspondent Howard Rosenberg in Washington contributed to this report.)

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