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After war in Lebanon, Israeli settlements growing again

West Bank expansion may complicate Secretary Rice's aim for Israeli-Palestinian talks.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 5, 2006


At this time last year, many people in this settlement started eyeing their future with increased doubt.

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Some 8,000 Jewish settlers had just been forcibly removed from Gaza, and people here learned that Karnei Shomron was going to be outside the separation barrier – a high-security network of walls and fencing that Israel is building inside the West Bank.

Today, things look much different, underscoring just how the turmoil in Gaza and the war with Lebanon has affected Israeli politics.

The route of the controversial barrier, yet to be built here, is now promised to encompass – rather than exclude – Karnei Shomron. Israel's Office of Building and Construction just issued permits for 20 new houses, along with 56 for the neighboring Alfei Menashe settlement and another 88 for Ariel, one of the largest West Bank settlements.

To the town council leader, permission to build 20 houses is a merely a drizzle in a drought. Over the past year, he says, more than 100 young people who grew up in Karnei Shomron married and want to settle down close to their families, but cannot find housing.

"It's been a long time that we haven't been allowed to build," says Herzl Ben-Ari, the head of the town council, using a laser pen to point out the open spaces on the topographical map that hangs in his office. He wants to put housing on each plot of land considered to be within the settlement's borders. His dream: to turn the settlement of 6,700 into a city of 20,000.

Palestinian dreams, of course, look markedly different, including the establishment of an independent state, a goal they view as incompatible with settlement expansion. To them, and to US officials hoping to coax Israeli and Palestinian leaders back to the negotiating table, news of settlement growth only complicates efforts.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was due to meet with Palestinian and Israeli leaders Wednesday in an attempt to "explore ideas" and pursue "a way forward" in the impasse, US officials here say.

"We see the road map as the best way forward, and among Israel's road map obligations is to remove illegal settlement outposts and to cease settlement expansion," says Stewart Tuttle, the spokesman for the US embassy in Tel Aviv, referring to the plan that calls for a series of steps leading to an independent Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel. "It is our expectation that the Israeli government will abide by those commitments."

The future of Israel's settlements in the West Bank has been a moving target over the course of the past half-year. When he was elected six months ago as the head of the Kadima party, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that he would pursue a new "realignment plan" in order to continue with the course of unilateral withdrawals pioneered by Ariel Sharon.

Just as Mr. Sharon pulled out of Gaza without negotiating with the Palestinians, Mr. Olmert said he would withdraw from several West Bank settlements deemed untenable because they are far away from others, or too far from the 1967 Green Line.