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Jewish Settlements Expanding Ahead of Israeli Gaza Pullout - 2004-07-23

Israeli settlements in Gaza and parts of the West Bank are still expanding, despite plans to evacuate them by the end of next year. The expansion is documented in a new report by the Peace Now group. Peace Now, an Israeli organization, says it has documented growth in Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, including those slated for evacuation.

The organization issued a report claiming that 3,100 new housing units are currently being constructed in Jewish settlements.

The findings, based on aerial and ground surveys taken over the past four months, are potentially embarrassing for the Israeli government, which is meant to freeze settlement activity under the international "road map to peace" plan.

The figures have also been published in the wake of the decision by the Cabinet of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to approve the dismantling of all Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank next year.

Dror Etkes, who monitors settlement growth for Peace Now, says that the findings of the organization have exposed Mr. Sharon's true strategy.

He says the prime minister intends to give up some settlements, in a bid to ensure the survival of many others.

"This is exactly the ultimate proof that Sharon, when he is dismantling settlements in Gaza and in the north part of the West Bank, is actually meaning to save the vast majority of settlements in the West Bank," Mr. Etkes said.

The Peace Now report also says it has located up to 51 new illegal Jewish outposts, almost double the number cited by Mr. Sharon's government.

Yesha, the council for the Jewish settlements, says the findings of Peace Now are irrelevant.

A spokesman for the council, Josh Hasten, says the settlements are not establishing new outposts, but simply expanding in line with population growth.

"We don't view these [outposts] as illegal at all," he said. "We see these as expanding natural growth of our existing communities, that's what these are."

Mr. Hasten says that his organization is also stepping up efforts to block Mr. Sharon's government from dismantling any of the settlements in Gaza and the West Bank.

At the same time, he says, the Yesha Council opposes any violent resistance by settlers against Israeli soldiers and police who have been ordered to evacuate them.