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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.

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In the weeks before the end of the freeze, Palestinian officials said they would judge Israel on action on the ground rather than the declarations of its leaders, leaving open the possibility that they would rejoin if building activity was minor.

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"We noticed that [settlement building] is getting significantly faster after the Israelis refused to renew the freeze," says Mr. Khatib, the Palestinian spokesman. "That's the main indicator to the Palestinian public and to the Palestinian politicians about the lack of seriousness.''

Prime Minister Netanyahu, who faces pressure from his pro-settler coalition partners, argues he has already made an unprecedented concession to restart talks with the freeze. On Monday, he said he would consider a new temporary moratorium in return for Palestinian recognition of Israel's Jewish character.

Settler spokesman: A dash to make up for 10-month freeze

Despite defiant foundation ceremonies marking the end of the freeze, the settler leaders have sought to keep a low profile on new building at the behest of Netanyahu.

Naftali Bennett, the director general of the umbrella settler leadership, the Yesha Council, initially predicted a "slow ramp-up." When asked about the pace of building during the first two weeks of the freeze, he declined to comment.

Mr. Bennett complains that the pool of projects is drying up because the government hasn't approved new tenders for large-scale building in West Bank settlements.

Hagit Ofran, the building monitor for the leftist group Peace Now, confirmed there have been no building tenders in the West Bank in over a year. The absence of projects in the big cities will also encourage more building in isolated settlements.

Hagit Ofran: Why a young Israeli woman spies on Israeli settlements in West Bank

David Haivri, a settler spokesman affiliated with the regional council representing Israeli communities in the northern West Bank, confirmed there is a dash to make up for a 10-month delay in housing starts created by the freeze.

"I expect that in the few months left till the end of the year 2010, we will compensate for our downtime and begin building at least as many homes as we did in 2008," he said in an e-mail.

Scoping out new settlement building

Etkes, formerly of the left-wing groups Peace Now and Yesh Din, became the first person outside the Israeli government to systematically track settlement growth. In the role, he has spent most of the last decade traversing the West Bank by car and by plane.

Officials from the US consulate in Jerusalem regularly seek him out on settlement activity, but settlers like Haivri see him as bent on smearing their image. Over the course of the days since the end of freeze, Etkes has taken to the roads again to assess the pace of renewed building.

Standing on a hilltop overlooking a construction site at the western edge of Beitar Illit, Etkes explains the different between post- and pre-expiration construction. Because the temporary freeze covered just housing starts – not projects already under way – actual Israeli building in the West Bank during the moratorium slowed by only 16 percent.

There are homes with nearly completed frames built during the freeze because they were started prior to the moratorium. Across a planned road, Etkes points to plots with fresh foundation work.

"This kind of construction is not older than a week,'' he says, before continuing on to tour nearly a dozen other settlement building sites. "The cement base, the iron rods and wood planks mean the construction is at a very beginning stage.''

Salah Issa, a Palestinian construction foreman nearby, confirms Etkes' rough estimate of the number of new units going up since Sept. 26. Then he points out an access road leading to an empty ridge where a new development is planned. "Do you think they listen when Obama says stop? They don't listen to anyone."