Shorts: Mideast

Report: Israel ramps up settlement plans

The Israeli government is planning to build at least 73,300 new housing units in the West Bank, according to a new report.

In its report released March 2, Peace Now said that at least 15,000 of the housing units already have been approved and the rest remain in the planning stages, based on an examination of maps and other information available on the Israeli government’s Web site.

Some 8,950 of the units already have been built, the report said. More than 5,700 of the planned units are located in eastern Jerusalem and about 19,000 are slated for settlements located beyond the security barrier.

The planned construction could double the size of some settlements, including Betar Illit, Ariel, Givat Ze’ev, Maale Adumim, Efrat and Geva Binyamin, according to the report’s findings. “If all the plans are realized, the number of settlers in the territories will be doubled” with an addition of about 300,000, according to the report. — jta

Newspaper: Hamas wanted secret talks

Hamas tried to start secret talks with Israel before its military operation in Gaza, a British newspaper reported.

The terrorist organization passed messages about kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit through a member of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s family, according to an article in the weekly Observer published March 1. The paper said it agreed to protect the identity of the family member and details of the incident.

Attempts to establish a direct line of communication between Israel and Hamas were negotiated by veteran Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, according to the Observer. Baskin said Hamas has made overtures for direct negotiations with Israel three times since Shalit was captured in a cross-border raid in June 2006.

The report said Olmert’s office told Baskin shortly after Shalit’s kidnapping that it does not negotiate with terrorists. Later, during Operation Cast Lead, Hamas rejected the opening of secret negotiations over the linking of a prisoner exchange to free Shalit with a cease-fire, the Observer reported.

Baskin’s contact was a senior member of Hamas whom he met in Europe and who was close to the Hamas leadership in Damascus and Gaza, he told the newspaper. — jta

U.N. informed of more rocket fire

Israel has filed a complaint with the United Nations Security Council over the continued rocket fire on Israeli civilians from Gaza.

Gabriela Shalev, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., filed the official complaint March 2. It came after a weekend in which at least 12 Kassam rockets and their improved versions struck southern Israel, including one that slammed into a school in Ashkelon.

In a letter sent to Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya’s ambassador to the U.N. and the Security Council’s rotating president, Shalev wrote: “These ongoing attacks not only hinder efforts to reach a stable and durable cease-fire, but they represent an ongoing threat to the peace and security of Israel, as well as the people of Gaza.”

The letter also was addressed to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. — jta

Olmert expected to be indicted

Israeli attorney general Menahem Mazuz has informed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he plans to indict him on fraud charges.

Mazuz told the prime minister’s attorney March 1 that he would file an indictment on charges that include fraud, breach of public trust and receiving illegal funds from American businessman Moshe Talansky, the Israeli media is reporting. Mazuz did not mention bribery among the charges.

Olmert, who would be the first Israeli prime minister to be indicted, can seek a final hearing in a bid to change Mazuz’s mind. Olmert remains the prime minister until Prime Minister–designate Benjamin Netan-yahu forms a government coalition. Olmert stepped down last fall after a series of scandals and investigations forced his resignation. — jta

Panel says few Israelis safe from chemical hit

A parliamentary panel said March 2 that most Israelis have no protection against chemical weapons attack and harshly criticized defense officials for what it called a “continuing mess” in failing to replace stockpiles of worn and obsolete gas mask and antidote kits.

The annual report of the State Comptroller’s Committee said a 2004 Cabinet decision to collect kits previously distributed to the public and to store and maintain them centrally was never properly followed through.

The kits, containing gas masks, filters, syringes with an antidote for nerve gas and powder for neutralizing chemicals, were originally distributed in 1990, ahead of the first Gulf War.

Syria, which borders Israel to the north and has never made peace with Israel, is known to have chemical weapons. Israel considers Iran to be its greatest threat, but that danger is seen to be posed by the potential for nuclear arms. — ap