Israel takes steps toward new settlement in volatile city

AP News
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Posted: Aug 22, 2016 12:44 PM
Israel takes steps toward new settlement in volatile city

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli authorities on Monday confirmed that they have begun the process of expanding an Israeli settlement in Hebron, a West Bank city that has been the focus of nearly a year of violence.

The Palestinians swiftly condemned the move, saying they would seek international pressure to halt the plan from going forward.

The Palestinians, along with the international community, oppose all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories they seek for a future independent state. Israel captured both areas in the 1967 Mideast war.

Construction in Hebron, the West Bank's largest city, is especially contentious. About 1,000 Jewish settlers live in heavily fortified enclaves in the city, surrounded by some 200,000 Palestinians. The city is holy to both Jews and Muslims. There is frequent friction between the sides, and the city has been a flashpoint of violence during nearly a year of fighting.

Since last September, Palestinians have killed 34 Israelis in shootings, stabbings and vehicular attacks. At least 206 Palestinians have died by Israeli fire in the same period. Israel says most of the dead were attackers, though the Palestinians have challenged many of the Israeli accounts.

The site in question is next to Beit Romano, one of the settler enclaves inside Hebron. Most recently, it has been used by the Israeli military.

COGAT, the Israeli defense body responsible for civilian affairs in the West Bank, confirmed Monday that permission "to plan infrastructures" has been granted.

Hagit Ofran of the anti-settlement group Peace Now said it was the first approval in the area in more than a decade. She accused Israel of using "legal acrobatics" of allocating the land to settlers, instead of turning it over to the Palestinian-run municipality.

Settlers say they are returning to properties that belonged to Jews before they fled the area following deadly Arab riots in 1929.

Yishai Fleisher, a spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron, welcomed expanding the settlement, saying it "would be good news for the Jewish community here." However, he said there are no building plans yet.

Although any construction is likely years away, the plan threatened to upset the already-tense climate in Hebron.

Kamel Hmeid, the Palestinian governor of Hebron, called it "one of the most dangerous decisions" by Israel. "What is happening is a cooperation and collusion between the government and the settlers."

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, issued a statement accusing Israel of trying to "Judaize" Hebron.

It vowed to turn to the Israeli Supreme Court, United Nations and international courts to stop the plan. "We stress the need for immediate action to prevent the implementation of this new settlement plan," it said.

The Israeli steps come at a time of deadlock in international peace efforts. The most recent round of U.S.-mediated talks broke down more than two years ago.

A number of parties, including the U.S., France and European Union, have attempted to restart negotiations. On Monday, both Egypt's president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Palestinian officials said that Russia has also offered to host peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Gaps between the sides are so vast that talks appear unlikely anytime soon. Nabil Abu Rdeneh, the spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said Monday that the Palestinian leader is ready to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but only if he meets a series of conditions, including a freeze on settlement construction. The Palestinians say that continued construction on occupied lands is a sign of bad faith by Israel.

Netanyahu's government is dominated by West Bank settlers and their supporters, and Netanyahu is unlikely to agree to halt construction.

Despite the continued deadlock, a new Israeli-Palestinian poll released Monday showed that a narrow majority on both sides still favor a peace settlement that would establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The poll found that 51 percent of Palestinians and 59 percent of Israelis still support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Tamar Hermann, an Israeli political scientist who conducted the survey with Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, said that under the current circumstances, the results were "not amazingly encouraging," but also "not discouraging."

"It showed there is still some basis for optimism with the right leadership," she said.

The survey interviewed 1,270 Palestinians and 1,184 Israelis in June, and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

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Eyad Moghrabi in Hebron, West Bank contributed to this report.