As a dispute over expanding the West Bank Jewish settlement of Efrat broadened this week, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin ordered a review of the legality of the building plans.
At the prime minister’s request, Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair began investigating the legality of building 500 housing units on a 150-acre plot south of Bethlehem.
Palestinian residents of the nearby village of Al-Khader claim the land belongs to them. And several Palestinian officials have claimed that such an expansion would violate the Palestinian self-rule accord.
The plot in dispute was earmarked for Efrat by the previous Likud government. It was later bought by Israeli settlers for private development.
According to a decision made several years ago by then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon of Likud, private building can take place on state land. But it can be halted for two reasons: security or what is described as “public order.”
Since coming to power, the Rabin government has adopted a policy freezing all government construction projects in the territories. But questions arose this week over what steps the government can take to stop the construction, since a private contractor has the building rights.
The issue has been seen as a test of Rabin’s willingness to risk a showdown with the 120,000 Jewish residents of the West Bank.
Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres held consultations this week on the matter and the issue was expected to come up at the next weekly Cabinet meeting.
On Wednesday, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman retracted earlier reports that the government had ordered a halt to construction at the site.
Meanwhile, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat called a special meeting Wednesday of the Palestinian Authority to discuss the issue.
Several Palestinian officials called for a cutoff of the ongoing negotiations with Israel because of the dispute.
Meretz coalition members sided strongly with the Palestinians in calling for an immediate end to the construction.
“It’s impossible on one hand to conduct negotiations with the Palestinians and at the same time create the impression that lands are being taken from the Palestinians and settlements put up,” Environment Minister Yossi Sarid told Army Radio.
Sarid said that until the precise status of the disputed land is clarified “the situation must be frozen and the status quo maintained.”
Bulldozers continued to clear the land on Wednesday, as Palestinians from the area pitched tents nearby and raised Palestinian flags in continuation of their protest.
On Tuesday, Israeli army officials, declaring the area a closed military zone, evicted Arab protesters and Israeli peace activists from the site.
There were some minor scuffles when the army attempted to clear the area. Some 44 demonstrators were detained, including 13 Israelis.