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Monday, 27 May, 2002, 14:09 GMT 15:09 UK
Settlement drive in West Bank
West Bank Jewish settlement
Palestinians fiercely oppose Jewish settlements
A group of Jewish settlers in the West Bank has launched a controversial campaign to attract more Israelis to join them.


If anyone tries to hold a populating campaign in the situation which we face... we will pay dearly for it

Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer

Settlers in the Binyamin area say they aim to bring 1,000 families - about 4,500 people - to their 32 settlements by the end of the year. At present an estimated 29,000 settlers live in the area.

The organisers say no new building will be required, and that the newcomers would move into vacant homes.

But the plan has been criticised by Israeli peace activists and Israel's Labour Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.

'New impetus'

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Likud party have in the past been the main sponsors of Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza.

Under their coalition agreement with Labor, no new settlements are to be established.

The head of the settlement project in the Binyamin area, Elazar Sela, says his goal was "to bring some 1,000 families to the Binyamin area in order to... give new life and new impetus to all that is called settlements".

Mr Sela estimates that there are about 200 vacant houses in the Binyamin area, plus about 50 available for rent and about 50 mobile homes, making a total of 300.

High price

But Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said the campaign would have disastrous consequences.

Jewish settlers
Young settlers have never had another home
He said it would lead to more Palestinian suicide attacks and would stifle any hope of a negotiated peace with the Palestinians.

"If anyone tries to hold a populating campaign in the situation which we face today, in my opinion we will pay dearly for it," he said.

Israel's Peace Now organisation has also condemned the plan.

"The settlers are setting up physical obstacles to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state and without such a state there will be no peace and no security for Israel," Peace Now spokesman Didi Remez said.

The Palestinians, who hope to establish a state in the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem, are fiercely opposed to settlement expansion.


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