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Israeli settlement building surges as US pushes for a new freeze

Israeli settlement monitors estimate that construction has begun on 500 new units – nearly one-quarter of the number for all of 2008 – as settlers try to make up for lost time.

By Correspondent / October 15, 2010

Backdropped by the Jewish settlement of Shaked, a Palestinian boy carries containers to be used during the olive harvest at the West Bank village of Nazlet Al-Sheikh Zeid near Jenin city, Friday, Oct. 15.

Mohammed Ballas/AP Photo


Beitar Illit, West Bank

In the two and a half weeks since Israel's settlement freeze expired, there's been a surge in construction on new West Bank homes, dimming prospect the Palestinians will agree to resume peace talks.

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"The resumption at this scale makes it more complicated to make arrangement that will allow a resumption of talks," says Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib. "They are putting more sticks in the wheels.''

In Beitar Illit, one of the biggest and fastest growing settlements, construction crews have started working on 100 new units previously stifled by the moratorium. As iron rods sprout up amid newly poured cement foundations, bulldozers are carving an entry road to an empty hill slated as a new housing development.

Monitors who toured dozens of building sites throughout the West Bank over the past week estimate work has begun on about 500 housing units – one-fourth the number of housing starts for all of 2008.

"A few hundred in two weeks is a lot," says Dror Etkes, a housing monitor who opposes expanded building, as he navigates from memory the construction sites at the perimeter of settlements. "Obviously [the settlers] felt that they had to start fast to have facts on the ground again in case there will be a new freeze so they'll have enough construction. This is the game."

The pace of the new building significantly dilutes the impact of a US proposal to defuse tensions over settlement expansion and get peace talks moving again. The US and Israel have discussed a two- to three-month extension of the moratorium on housing starts that expired on Sept. 26. But a new freeze will have no significance for the Palestinians if the hundreds of new units begun in the last two weeks aren't stopped as well.

"This 60-day extension is basically nonsense," says Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli Consul General to New York, who sees little prospect of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reaching common ground on a peace deal. "Logic dictates if you are going to delineate a border, you stop building now, or at an early stage in the negotiations, you agree on a border'' – and thus agree on where it is permissible to build.

Ideological settlements see surge in construction

The freeze is also having an unintended consequence: building in the West Bank is slowly shifting from large settlements near Israel's border to smaller far-flung settlements that Israel is expected to evacuate if a peace deal is reached.

In the rush to build both before and after the 10-month moratorium, settler construction has surged on medium- and small-sized projects overseen by ideologically driven builders. Those require less bureaucracy than large-scale building.

Palestinians argue that construction erodes the contours of their future state in the West Bank, and that Israel must cease building as a goodwill sign before talks begin in earnest.

On Friday, Palestinians denounced the Israeli publication of building tenders for 238 new homes in East Jerusalem, where they envision a capital of their future state.

REPORT: How Israeli-Palestinian battle for Jerusalem plays out in one neighborhood

Though the city wasn't included in the freeze, Israeli officials had refrained from commissioning new building there since announcing 1,600 new units in the middle of a March visit by Vice President Joe Biden.

Palestinians see a 'lack of seriousness'