Israel expands settlement bloc near Bethlehem

Israel expands settlement bloc near Bethlehem Jerusalem: Israel has approved construction of 40 homes in a new settler enclave near the West Bank town of Bethlehem, effectively expanding a large settlement bloc there, the defence ministry said on Monday.

"The defence minister approved the construction of 40 housing units in Givat HaDagan in Efrat several months ago," the ministry said in a statement, adding that a tender for the project had been issued by the Israeli Land Authority.

Efrat lies in the sprawling Etzion bloc of settlements which lies southwest of Bethlehem, with the new district set to expand the bloc northwards.

The military is also mulling approval for another new settler enclave just to the west of Givat HaDagan -- a farm called Givat Eitam which would be built on land just to the east of the planned route of the vast separation barrier cutting across the West Bank.

"The IDF is currently reviewing the Efrat regional council's request regarding the establishment of a farm in the area known as Eitam hill. The request refers to a 31 hectares territory owned by the Himnuta company," a statement from the military said.

Haaretz, which broke the story today morning, said construction of the farm was a bid to preserve the land for the future expansion of Efrat, suggesting there were plans to build some 2,500 homes in that area.

With completion of the project, which is likely to take two or three years, "Jewish settlement in the northern Etzion bloc will reach the edges of Bethlehem's southernmost suburbs," the paper said.