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9 Israeli families set up wildcat settlement on West Bank hill, further angering Palestinians
An Israeli youth rides a donkey at the settlement of Maskiot in the Jordan Valley Friday, 15, Feb. 2008. Nine Israeli families have moved to Maskiot, located in a valley deep in the West Bank, setting down six trailer homes this week and promising Friday to bring more to the disputed area the Palestinians want for a future state. - photo by Associated Press
    MASKIOT, West Bank — Nine Israeli families staked out homesteads in a valley deep in the West Bank on Friday and promised to bring more settlers to the area that the Palestinians want for a future state.
    Palestinian charges of bad faith over the move were fueled by reports that the Israeli government has awarded permits for more Jewish housing in an east Jerusalem neighborhood.
    The wildcat action at Maskiot, in the northern West Bank, was funded in part by a private American group and is just one of recent Israeli actions to anger Palestinians as peace negotiators try to reach a final treaty.
    President Bush hopes to get the sides to complete a deal by year’s end, but Israeli settlement activity and Palestinian failure to rein in militant violence are widely seen as stumbling blocks.
    The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the government has issued permits for construction of 307 Jewish homes in the Har Homa area of east Jerusalem. That drew sharp comment from a leading Palestinian peace negotiator.
    ‘‘In the morning there are new violations at Har Homa and then in the afternoon we hear of caravans in the northern West Bank,’’ Saeb Erekat said.
    When announced in December, plans for the east Jerusalem units prompted criticism from the U.S. and marred peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians as they were getting under way after seven years of bloodshed.
    This week, Israel announced that plans for an additional 350 units in the neighborhood would go ahead once the first 307 had been contracted out.
    ‘‘We condemn this move and we believe this will undermine our efforts to begin the negotiations on Jerusalem and settlements and other ... issues. The Israeli government has an obligation to stop settlement activity,’’ Erekat said.
    At Maskiot on Friday, the air smelled of fresh earth dug up for the trailers. A drill could be heard inside one of the homes.
    A barefoot boy peeked out the door of one home, calling for his father. Cardboard boxes from newly installed electric heaters littered the muddy ground. A bulldozer sat nearby.
    About two dozen Israelis from a former Gaza Strip settlement have moved to Maskiot despite a government decision last year to freeze plans to build a settlement here.
    The international community criticized Israel in 2006 when it announced plans to establish Maskiot, saying the project violated Israel’s commitments under an internationally sponsored peace plan.
    Yossi Hazut, the settler leader at Maskiot, said 28 families are waiting for more trailer homes to arrive. He said his group decided to move in after being forcibly evacuated from Gaza in 2005.
    Like many settlers, those at Maskiot are Orthodox Jews and believe the West Bank is part of land given to the Jewish people by God.
    ‘‘We hope that we will be able to bring all the families here,’’ Hazut said, holding his year-old daughter, Shir, while his wife made pizza.
    Maskiot has 150 acres where olive trees grow and date trees will be planted, said Hazut, who grew up in a tightly guarded Gaza settlement.
    A sign in English and Hebrew on one of the trailer homes read: ‘‘This caravan was built in part through a grant from One Israel Fund.’’ The organization’s Web site says it is a New York-based charitable group that helps Israelis who were evacuated from Gaza.
    While Hazut said he understands Israel’s government froze construction of permanent homes at Maskiot, he said a Defense Ministry official who visited him Friday did not say authorities would block any attempt to expand the community.
    The Defense Ministry oversees settlement activity. A call requesting ministry comment was not returned Friday.
    Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s spokesman, Mark Regev, said Friday that Israel would abide by its commitments in the internationally backed peace plan known as the ‘‘road map.’’
    ‘‘There will be no new settlements,’’ Regev said.
    Israel agreed in the plan not to establish new settlements or expand existing ones and to dismantle dozens of unauthorized outposts established by settlers to prevent land from being transferred to the Palestinians.
    But Israel has not taken down any of the outposts, and Palestinians fear they will eventually become established communities.
    ‘‘Most of the time our experience shows that they come move in and then the government keeps them there,’’ Erekat said.
    A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Israel, Stewart Tuttle, said Israel must evacuate all settlement outposts.
    ‘‘We have commitments from the government of Israel and we expect that the government of Israel will meet them,’’ he said.

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