Israel plans to double number of settlers in Jordan Valley
JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel's agriculture ministry has drawn up plans to double the number of Jewish settlers living in the sparsely-populated Jordan Valley area of the West Bank.
"The plan which has already won approval from within different ministries will increase the number of residents in 21 settlements by 50 percent in a year and then by a further 50 percent in the following year," spokesman Benjamin Rom told AFP on Friday.
A total of 6,300 settlers currently live in the Jordan Valley, according to official figures.
Rom said that the plan would involve a major increase in agricultural subsidies and the development of tourism in the area which also incorporates the Dead Sea.
The plan would be submitted within two weeks to an inter-ministerial commission on rural affairs which is chaired by Agriculture Minister Israel Katz.
A report in the Yediot Aharonot daily said that Katz had already coordinated the plan with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office director general Ilan Cohen. It had been approved by the finance ministry's budget director Kobi Haber.
The overall cost for the project, which will see at least 50 housing units built per year, is expected to reach 32 million dollars, the paper added.
Under the terms of the internationally-backed roadmap peace plan, Israel is meant to freeze all settlement activity but the government has continued to come up with expansion schemes.
Sharon believes that Israel's voluntary pullout from Gaza Strip will enable the country to strengthen its control over the West Bank where the vast majority of the 245,000 settlers live.
Katz, one of the most right-wing members of Sharon's cabinet, has been a consistent sceptic on the Gaza withdrawal which is due to begin in mid-August.
"The answer to those who give sponsorship to terror is strengthening Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley," he told Yediot.
"Abu Mazen (Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas) and the leaders of the terror organizations will look out the Muqataa (leadership compound) window every morning and see the Israeli Jordan Valley flourishing."
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who held talks with Sharon in Jerusalem last weekend, has consistently warned Israel against creating "facts on the ground."
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