Israeli Cabinet Halts Settlement Building in Wake of Controversy over Efrat Expansion

After a full day a deliberations, the Israeli Cabinet has decided to halt the construction of 500 housing units at a site near the West Bank settlement of Efrat.

But the ministers have agreed to allow construction on an alternate site closer to the settlement.

Several Cabinet ministers, along with settlement leaders and Palestinians, expressed dissatisfaction with the Cabinet’s decision on Monday.

The disputed site lies on a hilltop just over a mile north of Efrat near Bethlehem. Palestinians from the nearby village of Al-Khader claim the land belongs to them. Israeli settlers in turn claim they purchased the land privately and have the right to build upon it.

Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat last week called the construction plans at Efrat a “flagrant violation” of the Israeli-PLO self-rule accord signed last year.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said the Cabinet had reached its decision to halt construction at the Givat Tamar site near Efrat in order to preserve the peace process.

“Under no circumstances will we continue to work at Givat Tamar,” he told the Knesset, responding to no-confidence motions introduced by the right-wing National Religious Party and Tsomet.

The dispute over construction plans began Dec. 22, when bulldozers began clearing the 150-acre plot near Efrat. Ongoing demonstrations by Palestinians and Israeli sympathizers turned violent last Friday. Eleven Palestinians and seven Israelis were injured while attempting to break through an army cordon to reach the construction site.

At the request of Rabin, Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair issued a legal opinion this week. He said that the private contractors who bought the land had followed proper procedures.

But he also said that the government could break the contract, if it compensated the settlers’ building association.

Rabin said Monday that it was the government’s policy to allow private construction at existing settlements. But he also said he would prevent construction of new settlements, in adherence with the 1992 settlement freeze he put into effect upon taking office.

Ministers from the left-wing Meretz bloc voted against Monday’s Cabinet decision. They expressed opposition to any further settlement construction, including the expansion of existing settlements, as a violation of the spirit of Israel’s accord with the Palestinians.

Economics Minister Shimon Shetreet abstained from Monday’s Cabinet vote. He and other conservative ministers said they are concerned that any ban on building could have implications for the future of the greater Jerusalem area, where future building activity is also envisioned.

Opposition parties, meanwhile, accused Rabin of bowing to pressure from Arafat.

“The government is knuckling under pressure of violence and political pressure,” said opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. “This is not a way to run a country.”

Settlement leaders said they were planning protests in wake of the Cabinet decision.

Yinun Ahiman, the head of the Efrat local council, at first accepted the government proposal. But he later rejected it because he was opposed to plans to set up a ministerial commission to review settlement policy.

The Prime Minister’s Office had maintained steady contacts with Ahiman throughout the day on Monday in an effort to reach a compromise.

Palestinian leaders also criticized has Cabinet decision, saying it did not resolve the central issue – the expansion of settlements.

Palestinian Authority official Saeb Erekat said the Israeli government was only transferring construction from one hilltop to another.

“Rabin cannot solve the problem by diverting bulldozers from one hilltop to another,” he said. “Negotiations will become meaningless, because negotiations, after all, are about land.

The issue was expected to surface later this week in Cairo, where Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were scheduled to resume their talks on implementing the next phase of Palestinian autonomy.

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