Israel funnels millions of dollars to settlements

AP News
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Posted: Dec 13, 2009 1:20 PM

The Israeli Cabinet voted Sunday to pour millions of dollars of new funding into Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including several hardline communities that have put up fierce resistance to government-imposed construction restrictions.

The vote caused an uncharacteristic rift in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Cabinet, with centrist members accusing the Israeli leader of caving in to pressure from Israeli extremists.

Netanyahu announced his spending plan last week, saying it would grant funds for transportation, education and health care to distressed areas throughout the country. But the inclusion of some Jewish settlements, particularly isolated communities known for their hardline populations, drew accusations that he is trying to buy off settlers who are furious over the new limits on construction in their communities.

No exact figure has been given for the proposed spending, but government spokesman Mark Regev said it is likely to be in the millions of dollars.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, leader of the centrist Labor Party, said the spending plan gave disproportionate weight to the isolated settlements. Among them are Kiryat Arba and Kedumim, settlements deep in the West Bank where residents have harassed and blocked inspectors sent to enforce the construction moratorium.

"There are a number of small settlements that are routinely a source of extreme behavior," Barak said, insisting that they should not be rewarded with funds.

He pointed to last Friday's torching of a West Bank mosque _ an unsolved attack in which West Bank Jewish extremists are suspected. No arrests have been made.

In Sunday's vote, the Cabinet approved the new spending plan by a vote of 21 to 5, with all five Labor ministers voting against it.

Netanyahu has defended the plan, known as the "map of national priorities," by stressing it would help some 2 million Israelis, including large numbers of Arab citizens. About 100,000 settlers, or one-third of the Jewish population of the West Bank, will benefit.

"We will determine the future of settlements only within the framework of a permanent agreement with the Palestinians," Netanyahu told his Cabinet. "This map is intended to close rifts at this time and also to bring in our security concerns."

Netanyahu last month announced a 10-month moratorium on the construction of new homes in the West Bank. He said the move was aimed at jump-starting peace talks with the Palestinians, who refuse to return to negotiations until Israel halts all settlement activity.

However, the Palestinians rejected the settlement slowdown as insincere because it does not include 3,000 homes already under construction or east Jerusalem, the section of the holy city the Palestinians claim as their capital.

"In the next 10 months of the moratorium, we will have more settler households, more settlements and more funding for settlements than we had in the previous 10 months," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. "This should be an eye opener" for the international community, he said.

In a separate development, Barak slapped an unprecedented penalty on an army-affiliated rabbinical school because its leader, a rabbi, urged his students to reject army orders to evacuate unauthorized settlements.

Barak ordered the military to cut its ties with the school at the militant West Bank settlement of Har Bracha. The school is part of a network that allows young men to split their time between the active military duty and religious studies.

In violent incidents, a Palestinian stabbed an Israeli woman in the West Bank, and Gaza militants fired two rockets at Israel in back-to-back attacks following the mosque torching.

The Israeli military said the woman was not seriously wounded in the attack late Saturday. No injuries were reported from the rocket fire Sunday, the latest violation of a halt on rocket salvos Gaza militants declared last month.

Also Sunday, Israel's attorney general said he planned to indict an Israeli Arab lawmaker on charges of meeting with enemies of the state in Syria.

Said Naffa is accused of meeting with extremist Palestinian militants in Syria in September 2007, said Justice Ministry spokesman Moshe Cohen. He said Naffa had 30 days to respond to the allegations in an effort to avoid an indictment.

Parliament would have to strip Naffa of his parliamentary immunity for a case to go forward. Naffa told The Associated Press he would fight the allegations.

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Associated Press Writers Ian Deitch and Diaa Hadid contributed to this report.