Maskiot, West Bank Israel has begun laying the foundations for a new Jewish settlement deep in the West Bank - breaking a promise to Washington while strengthening its hold on a stretch of desert it wants to keep as it draws its final borders.
The construction of Maskiot comes at a time when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seeks U.S. backing for eventually annexing parts of the West Bank as part of a plan to set Israel's eastern border with or without Palestinian consent.
The Palestinians and Israel's settlement watchdog group Peace Now say the Maskiot construction amounts to a new attempt to push Israel's future border deeper into the West Bank. "It's about grabbing land," said Yariv Oppenheimer of Peace Now.
Otniel Schneller, an Olmert adviser, confirmed Israel is building in additional West Bank areas to ensure they are not included in the lands given to the Palestinians. He said Israel needs to keep the Jordan Valley, where Maskiot is located, as a security buffer against Islamic militants based in Iraq, Iran and elsewhere.
Olmert has said that if efforts to resume peace talks fail, as expected, he would annex large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank and draw Israel's final borders by 2008. A separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank is to serve as the basis for the future border.
In order to ensure a Jewish majority in lands it controls, Israel plans to evacuate as many as 70,000 West Bank settlers, relocating them to the western side of the separation barrier. Israel depicts the move as a major concession, but Palestinians fear Jewish footholds like Maskiot will prevent them from being able to build a contiguous state on the evacuated lands.