A defence ministry spokeswoman said: "The ministry has given its green light for construction of 30 houses, conforming with the promise given by the previous defence minister, Shaul Mofaz, to rehouse residents of some settlements in Gaza who were evacuated in 2005."

 

New development

 

The new settlement, called Maskiot, will house 23 families who were removed from the Gaza Strip last year and will eventually house 100 families, said Dubi Tal, head of the Jordan Valley regional council.

 

"We condemn this act and this decision especially as it comes after the Israeli side committed itself to stop all unilateral actions"

Saeb Erekat,
Palestinian chief negotiator

The settlement is the first to be approved for the West Bank since 1992, said Peace Now, an anti-settlement watchdog group.

 

Previously, the authorities have approved the expansion of existing settlements.

 

In 2005, Israel dismantled all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and withdrew troops and settlers from the occupied territory.

 

Construction of the settlement is due to begin within weeks and is expected to take "two to three years" to complete, said Emily Amrusy, a spokeswoman for a group representing the settlers.

 

"There is no reason to rejoice at this decision as it is nothing more than the application of a promise made to those expelled from Gush Katif," she said, referring to the largest Gaza settlement bloc dismantled last year.

 

Criticism

 

The site of the new settlement was recently abandoned by the Israeli army, where it housed a unit of ultra-Orthodox soldiers.

 

Palestinians criticised the decision, saying that it went against agreements reached between Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian president, and Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister.

 

"We condemn this act and this decision especially as it comes after the Israeli side committed itself to stop all unilateral actions," Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator said in Ramallah.

 

"This is certain to destroy the atmosphere created after the meeting with Olmert, where they committed to many issues, especially to stop unilateral actions," he said.

 

"Israel must choose between peace and settlements because there is no peace with settlements," Erekat said.

 

Peace Now said the decision went against the internationally drafted 'roadmap' for Middle East peace.

 

"This is a veritable scandal, all the more so that this decision was taken by [defence minister] Amir Peretz," who is himself a former Peace Now activist, said Yariv Openheimer, the group's director general.

 

"This decision goes contrary to the roadmap, as well as the programme of the government. Moreover, it has not received approval from parliament," Openheimer said.

 

Roadmap terms

 

Under the terms of the peace roadmap launched in June 2003, Israel was supposed to halt settlement construction in the West Bank.

 

Geoff Anisman, a spokesman for the US embassy in Tel Aviv, said: "The US view on settlements remains unchanged.

 

"The US continues to urge both sides to meet their roadmap obligations and to avoid taking steps that could be viewed as predetermining the outcome of final status negotiations," he said.

 

All 121 settlements in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, are considered illegal under international law.

 

About 543 new housing units were built in the West Bank in 2006 in existing settlements, the housing ministry said on Tuesday.

 

In September, Israeli authorities invited bids for construction of 864 new housing units in West Bank settlements.