Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank – land expected to be at the nucleus of an independent Palestinian state in any peace deal with Israel – has surged since a partial freeze on settlement expansion expired on Sept. 26, says the left-leaning Israeli group Peace Now.
A spokesman for the group, which is opposed to settlement expansion in the occupied territories, told the BBC that settlers have begun construction on more than 600 new homes in the West Bank since Israel's 10-month moratorium on expansion expired. Peace Now estimates that the pace of growth is four times faster than prior to the freeze.The Associated Press offered a similar figure of 544, which, while not comprehensive, was based on visits to 16 settlements and phone calls to four dozen more.
"I estimate that work has started at about 600 housing units, and I'm looking to complete the survey in order to know the exact number," said Peace Now researcher Hagit Ofran, who is planning to finish a report on the settlements next week. "In some places, it is only leveling the ground that has started and in others, it's the very foundation that is now being dug."
That's another 100 units under way since the Monitor's Joshua Mitnick reported last week on a rapid spurt of new Israeli settlement building, in which settlers are trying to make up for lost time.
Settlement expansion in the West Bank has become the most visible obstacle to peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials touted by President Obama. The Palestinians see the expanding settlements as creating "facts on the ground" that demonstrate Israel is unwilling to give up land conquered in 1967's Arab-Israeli war for peace.
The Obama administration leaned hard on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to temporarily halt construction again as a gesture to keep the Palestinians at the peace table. So far, Israel has refused to agree, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is now considering walking away from the latest round of talks – less than two months old – entirely.
Many analysts say such a freeze will do little good if the recently started homes are not included in the deal. During the last freeze, homes already under construction were not affected by the freeze, resulting in only a 16 percent slowdown in settlement expansion during the 10-month period.
"This 60-day extension is basically nonsense," Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli Consul General to New York, told the Monitor's Mr. Mitnick last week. "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.
The near collapse of the peace talks, only recently restarted with much diplomatic fanfare, has Mr. Abbas and other Palestinian leaders considering radical and unilateral attempts to create an independent state, as the Monitor reported yesterday.
Palestinian leaders say they're considering appealing to the UN Security Council to recognize an independent Palestine. The UN considers Israel's occupation of land won in the 1967 war as illegal, but has until now neither recognized nor been asked to recognize a Palestinian state on that land.
While such an effort is unlikely to bear fruit in the short term – the US has a veto on the council, and is both a staunch ally of Israel and opposed to the move – major steps in that direction could open up a complicated new front in the 60-year-old conflict.
"It's a legitimate question to ask: 'What if this doesn't work?' " Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib told the Monitor yesterday. "If this fails, why don't we look into direct support by the international community to establish this state?"