With building ramping up again in West Bank settlements after Israel's 10-month moratorium expired Sunday, the antisettlement group Peace Now is hoping to get Israelis more in touch with what's happening there – literally.
A new iPhone app called "Facts on the Ground" allows users to zoom in on Google satellite images of the West Bank, where little blue Monopoly-style houses denote the size of each settlement – 123 in all.
Additional layers, such as red shading to denote illegal outposts or a blue line for Israel's separation barrier, can be selected with a tap of the finger for more context. Users interested in finding a specific settlement can select it from a list and be directed to a close-up view of the area, as well as information on when it was established and how the population has grown since then.
The application – launched in English by Peace Now's American branch, with plans for a future Hebrew version – highlights the myriad data necessary to get an accurate picture of how Israeli settlements are developing.
Peace Now's stated purpose of the application, which has a certain PR element to it, is to "democratize" information about the settlements – a goal shared by settlers themselves, even if they're seeking to persuade Israelis in an opposite direction.
"It's obvious [Peace Now's] agenda is to make the information available to hurt us,'' says David Haivri, a settler spokesman who lives in the settlement of Kfar Tapuach. "But it can be used to our advantage, because our supporters are interested.
"People who are in the middle don't understand our communities are not just a couple of kids on a hilltop," he adds. "They'll understand these are permanent communities and can't be moved around like a Monopoly game. ''
Why few Israelis pay attention to settlement expansion
Despite the fact the settlements are such a hot-button issue here, most of the Israeli public knows little about what's being built beyond the pre-1967 border known as the Green Line – even though more than 300,000 Israelis already live there.
"Most of these settlements are in peripheral areas,'' says Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at Hebrew University, who compared them with frontier towns in the Negev desert. "People aren't familiar with them. Most people don't know the West Bank.''
The outbreak of violence during two Palestinian uprisings, the first sparked in the late 1980s and the second 10 years ago today, deterred Israelis from visiting.
With little firsthand knowledge of the changes in the West Bank, few Israelis paid attention to the tripling of the settler population since Israelis and Palestinians began peace negotiations 17 years ago.
The recent construction of a separation barrier has made the West Bank, which many Israelis refer to by the biblical names Judea and Samaria, seem even more remote.
The growth of settlers in the West Bank is "an issue that the Israeli public doesn't care about," says Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now. "There's a great deal of complacency. Even though most people know what the implications of construction is for Israel's identity as a Jewish and democratic state, there's a certain shortsightedness."
Why many see settlements as illegal
The United Nations, Palestinians, and supporters such as Peace Now have repeatedly declared the settlements as illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which forbid the transfer of civilian populations into an occupied territory.
Settlers and their supporters, however, see the West Bank – conquered by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and, according to the Bible, promised by God to the Hebrew people – as fair game.
With more than 300,000 Israelis living in West Bank settlements, it is expected that at least some of these communities would be annexed to Israel as part of a final peace deal – perhaps as part of a land swap in which Arab towns within Israel would become part of a Palestinian state.
But the steady expansion of settlements has made it increasingly complicated for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to strike a compromise in the talks.