JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who halted construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank two years ago, has quietly approved expansion of one such community amid indications that others will also be enlarged to secure Israel's hold on parts of the territory when Palestinians gain autonomy there.
Oded Ben-Ami, the prime minister's spokesman, confirmed that Rabin had in August authorized the settlement of Alfei Menashe to add nearly 1,000 housing units, more than doubling its size. Other officials said this was not a return to extensive settlement and should be viewed differently from expansion of Jewish settlements deeper in the West Bank.
"It is on the 'seam,' " Ben-Ami said, referring to Alfei Menashe's position about two miles beyond the armistice line that formed the border between Israel and Jordan prior to the 1967 Middle East War. The "seam," he said, referred to areas about "100 meters or so" across the old border.
But the independent newspaper Haaretz reported that the government, looking toward Israel's eventual withdrawal from most of the West Bank, is planning to expand a series of settlements, mostly around Jerusalem and the northern West Bank town of Qalqiliya in an effort to hold these crucial areas when the territory comes under Palestinian administration.
These settlements would thus become Israel's front line with the Palestinian territories and, in time, the border. Alfei Menashe, which currently has a population of about 4,000, is southeast of Qalqiliya, an area where Israel was only seven miles wide under the old armistice line with Jordan.
The Palestine Liberation Organization accused Rabin of reneging on last year's peace agreement, and it expressed concern that this was simply the first of the settlements to be enlarged.
"It is very regrettable that Prime Minister Rabin has authorized such an expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories," Marwan Kanafani, a spokesman for PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, said in Gaza City. "This violates, in letter and spirit, all the agreements that the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority have signed with the Israeli government."
Kanafani also asserted that many Israeli settlements have been expanding for the past two years, often seizing additional Palestinian land to do so, despite Rabin's orders against new construction. Kanafani said the PLO would raise the issue with Israel.
After taking office in July, 1992, Rabin froze construction of about 10,000 housing units planned for the occupied territories by the previous right-wing Likud government, but he did permit work to continue on 13,700 homes whose foundations had been laid.
That decision helped win Israel important loan guarantees totaling $10 billion from the United States, which had described the Jewish settlements as "obstacles to peace" and held up the additional assistance.
Resumption of settlement construction is likely to bring criticism from the Clinton Administration.