TOVAH LAZAROFF, HERB KEINON and YAAKOV KATZ, THE JERUSALEM POST Jan. 1, 2007
Amid protests from the United States and the European Union, the Defense Ministry is reconsidering its approval of a new Jordan Valley community located over the Green Line, The Jerusalem Post learned on Sunday.
The government and the Defense Ministry initially downplayed last week's decision to allow the construction of 30 homes for Gaza evacuees in Maskiot.
A government source told the Post then that the decision was merely "adjusting" the status of a plot of state land where settlement has been authorized since 1981.
The small community, which is located off an isolated road in the Jordan Valley, has been populated on and off since 1982. Currently, it is home to a few permanent residents and a small pre-army academy that houses 50 Orthodox men in fewer than a dozen small white buildings.
The new homes would be constructed adjacent to the existing structures and would more than triple the number of structures on the site.
But after the EU and the US said the initiative violated Israel's international commitments with respect to the West Bank, Defense Minister Amir Peretz decided to reconsider the decision, according to sources in the Defense Ministry.
Discussions within the government are also taking place considering whether to go ahead with the project.
Jordan Valley Regional Council head Dubi Tal dismissed as insignificant the government's new hesitation to move forward with a project that has passed through six phases of approval over the last 14 months.
"It's nothing serious," he told the Post on Sunday.
Gaza evacuee Yossi Hazut, who is leading the Shirat Hayam group that wants to live there, said he too believed the government's case of cold feet was temporary.
Tal said then-prime minister Ariel Sharon and then-defense minister Shaul Mofaz first approved the move a few months after the Gaza disengagement in 2005.
Sitting in his living room looking out at the rain sweeping across the brown hills of the Jordan Valley, he recalled when he turned to Sharon.
"I thought, 'Here is an opportunity. If he [Sharon] says yes, it would have political implications for the Jordan Valley.' And that is how it was.
"I asked him for permission to bring evacuees. He said, 'We will authorize it.'"
Tal said he saw Sharon's decision as tacit approval for the continuation of Jewish settlement in the Jordan Valley.
Sharon, according to Tal, placed a number of conditions on his approval. The families could only be moved to a lightly-populated, authorized settlement, Tal said.
Sharon also asked that the move be kept quiet to avoid attention.
"We spoke very specifically about Maskiot," Tal said.
Since then, he said, there has been a long bureaucratic process, with the final phase completed last week. The plan, he said, is legal and cannot be stopped.
But the US and the EU say it is illegal.
State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said on Wednesday: "The establishment of a new settlement or the expansion of an existing settlement would violate Israel's obligations under the road map."
Gallegos said the US called on Israel "to meet its road map obligations and avoid taking steps that could be viewed as pre-determining the outcome of final-status negotiations."
The EU issued a similar statement last week, adding that "such unilateral actions are also illegal under international law and threaten to render the two-state solution physically impossible to implement."
The EU statement also said "this development would also mean the relocation of some of the Gaza settlers in the West Bank, something that the EU said was not acceptable when it gave its support to the Gaza disengagement."
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