POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 23, 2010
JERUSALEM » In the three months since Israel ended its settlement construction freeze in the West Bank, causing the Palestinians to withdraw from peace talks, a settlement-building boom has begun, especially in more remote communities that are least likely to be part of Israel after any two-state peace deal.
This means that if negotiations ever get back on track, there will be thousands more Israeli settlers who will have to relocate into Israel, posing new problems over how to accommodate them while creating a Palestinian state on the land where many of them are living now.
In addition to West Bank settlement-building, construction for predominantly Jewish housing in East Jerusalem, where the Palestinians hope to make their future capital, has been rapidly growing after a break of half a year, with hundreds of units approved and thousands more planned.
On a tour of West Bank construction sites, Dror Etkes, an anti-settlement advocate who has spent nine years chronicling their growth, said he doubted whether there had been such a burst in settlement construction in at least a decade.
Hagit Ofran, a settlement opponent who monitors their growth for Peace Now, said, "We can say firmly that this is the most active period in many years." She said there were 2,000 housing units being built now and a total of 13,000 in the pipeline that did not require additional permits. In each of the past three years, about 3,000 units have been built.
While government data on the building will not be published until the new year, settler leaders did not contradict these assessments.
"The freeze is over, and we are filling in the gap of need that was postponed," said David Ha'Ivri, spokesman for the Samaria Regional Council in the northern West Bank. "The Peace Now numbers are reliable. Their count seems to be correct. The only difference is that they see it as negative, and we see it as positive."
Naftali Bennett, executive director of the Yesha Council, the settlers' umbrella organization, said he had information only on where there was a lack of building, not where there was construction in progress. He said his group wanted government tenders for an additional 4,000 badly needed units, mostly in large settlements.
Palestinian leaders have said they will not return to peace talks with Israel as long as settlement construction occurs. Israel has replied that the sooner talks get started, the sooner settlements and other areas of dispute can be solved, so staying away from negotiations is self-defeating for the Palestinians.
The Obama administration is trying to negotiate with each side in hopes of finding common ground. The Palestinians are also planning to submit to the U.N. Security Council a resolution condemning settlement construction.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said that since the 10-month building moratorium ended in September, the government had been sticking to building only in existing settlements and had not expropriated more land for settlements. The construction going on now, he said, "will not in any way change the final map of peace."
Settlement opponents disagree, saying that the larger the settler population, the more resources — water, roads, security — will be needed for them and the harder it will be to get Israelis to agree to a Palestinian state. Moreover, much of the new building is deep in the West Bank.
Ir Amim, an Israeli advocacy group devoted to sharing Jerusalem, has been watching the growth of Israeli building in East Jerusalem with alarm.
"These areas are the only ones for Palestinians to build, but instead there are Jewish projects planned," said Yudith Oppenheimer, executive director of the group, on a tour of East Jerusalem areas where Jewish housing is due to expand, leaving little room for any border. "The Israeli government says it is not creating anything new or changing the status quo. But by filling in these gaps and stretching the edges of Jewish neighborhoods, Israel is surrounding Palestinian neighborhoods and making any future border impossible."
Elie Isaacson, a spokesman for Jerusalem's mayor, Nir Barkat, who opposes dividing the city, said the municipality did not build for either Jews or Palestinians specifically, since that would be discriminatory.
"Are they saying we should encourage religious segregation in case there is a Palestinian state?" he asked. "We see it as our job to take care of all residents of Jerusalem, East and West, and dividing the building by race is both illegal and immoral."
In the West Bank, most of the building in recent years has been in large settlements relatively close to Israel that are widely expected to be annexed by Israel by swapping land elsewhere in a future deal. These include the large settlements of Maale Adumim, the Gush Etzion bloc, Betar Illit and Modiin Illit.
Building in those areas generally requires government tenders, and those have been slower in coming lately. The recent growth has been more in private building, mostly in smaller and more remote settlements, places with names like Tapuach, Talmon, Ofra, Eli and Shiloh. A number of unauthorized outposts are also experiencing substantial growth. The Defense Ministry is in charge of all activity in the West Bank and has the authority to stop even private construction, although it may end up paying compensation.
The international community considers all settlement building in the lands won by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, including East Jerusalem, to be illegitimate and illegal. Israel annexed East Jerusalem and does not consider building there to be an act of settlement. It argues that the West Bank is disputed, not occupied, and that building housing there for Israelis violates no international law.
There are more than 300,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and 200,000 Israeli Jews living in East Jerusalem, whom most of the world also considers settlers.
But within the Israeli legal system, settlements are regulated, while scores of small communities in the West Bank — known as outposts — have grown without regulation. Israel has vowed to take down many of those outposts, but it has not done so, largely to avoid the internal political confrontation that such a move would entail.
Since establishing any Palestinian state seems certain to involve moving tens of thousands of settlers into Israel, the more settlers there are, the harder such an establishment becomes, unless all the new settlers are within close-in blocs and the blocs become part of Israel.
Much of the latest construction boom is not only outside those blocs, but also the boundaries of settlements are often unclear. Israelis are currently leveling new hillsides that some consider parts of the existing communities and others consider expansions or outposts.
"Many of the settlements in which there was no new construction in recent years suddenly have new rows of foundations," Ofran said. "We recently sent a follow-up letter to the Ministry of Defense listing all construction we have seen, with exact coordinates and pictures. They said they would get back to us."