JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The population of Jewish settlements in the West Bank could grow by 10,000 in the coming year despite a declared “freeze” on Israeli building in the occupied territory, an Israeli cabinet minister has said.
Benny Begin, a rightist minister and member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, told a conference on Thursday night that the moratorium would be painful but was not a full construction “freeze” in the accepted sense of the word.
He noted that 3,000 homes already started would be completed regardless of the freeze, and said about 10,000 more settlers would move in, according to reports by Israel Radio and the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
“This is neither a freeze nor a suspension,” the paper quoted Begin as saying. “Construction in Judea and Samaria will continue in the next 10 months,” he said, using the Biblical term for the West Bank.
“We are now clarifying the conditions on the ground and saying that we don’t intend to restrict or suspend new building permits.”
Government spokesman Mark Regev declined to comment on Begin’s remarks and said that the declared freeze stood.
“There has been no change, the (freeze) stands and the cessation for 10 months stands,” Regev said.
Netanyahu ordered a freeze on some settlement building three weeks ago, in what his government said was a gesture to Washington to help re-start peace talks with the Palestinians.
Palestinian leaders have so far refused to resume negotiations, saying the temporary moratorium did not go far enough.
Some Israeli settlers have denounced Netanyahu for betraying their trust, and several thousand held a protest demonstration in Jerusalem in Wednesday. But some Israeli critics of the policy move have called it a sham.
The freeze applies to planned West Bank housing, but not to building planned for East Jerusalem — whose annexation by Israel is not recognised internationally — or to schools, synagogues and other community infrastructure in the settlements.
The measure was aimed at placating Israel’s ally the United States. President Barack Obama began the year by demanding a total freeze on settlement activity but later relaxed his position and indicated a partial halt would be helpful.
Obama is pressing the Palestinians to resume peace talks.
Ideological divides run deep in Israel, especially over the future of some 500,000 Jews who live among 2.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas captured in a 1967 war that Palestinians want for a viable future state.
Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Mark Trevelyan