The Israeli Housing and Construction Ministry on Monday released tenders to construct 228 new settler houses in two West Bank settlements near Bethlehem.150 new housing units are slated to be built in the settlement of Bitar Ilit and 78 in Givat Ha’Zeit in Efrat settlement bloc.

Apparently these unites were planned to be built five years ago, however Raanan Gissin, an advisor to the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon attributed the delay to bureaucracy.

‘This was planned a long time ago,’ Gissin said. ‘These are the large settlement blocs, they will be strengthened.’

On the other hand, the Israeli left wing movement Peace Now described this move as political opportunism by Sharon on the eve of the elections.

‘The minute they think that media attention is focused on politics, they put out lots of tenders,’ said Dror Etkes of Peace Now. ‘Sharon said a few years ago don’t talk – build. This is exactly what he’s doing.’

Local observers said Sharon is interested to satisfy the settlers whom he made angry by his unilateral disengagement plan, under which Israel evacuated the settlements in the Gaza Strip.

Both Bitar Ilit and Efrat settlements are built on lands that belong to Palestinians from the Bethlehem area.

There are at least 18.1 out of 806 squared Kilometers that are occupied by settlements in the Bethlehem area.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the Yesha Council of settlements called on Sharon to step up construction in the settlements.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Ereikat condemned the decision, and called on the U.S. to pressure Israel to stop settlement activity, which according to the Oslo accords and the Road Map peace plan should be frozen.

‘They suspend the peace process and they suspend the negotiations and they suspend the contacts and the only thing they are continuing with is settlement construction,’ said Ereikat.

Israel is planning to build at least 1,131 new housing units that can accommodate some six thousand new settlers all over the West Bank. Tenders for the construction of 803 of the units were released after the decision to hold early elections.