Israel Continues West Bank Building
NOTE _ Expansion of Israeli settlements is one of the hottest issues in the Middle East peace process. With the United States pressing for a halt in settlement construction, an AP correspondent visited 65 settlements and found enough building under way to dramatically increase their population.
By HILARY APPELMAN
Associated Press Writer
MATTITYAHU, West Bank (AP) _ Despite U.S. pressure for a ``timeout″ in Israeli settlement expansion, a building boom is in full swing across the West Bank.
The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refuses to say how much construction it has authorized.
But visits by The Associated Press to 65 of the 144 West Bank settlements found more than 7,500 apartments and houses being built _ enough to increase the settler population by at least 30,000 people, or more than 20 percent, over the next two years.
In addition to the homes under construction, hundreds have been completed in recent months, and thousands more are planned.
To the Palestinians, the expansion of settlements on territory occupied by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war is a land grab that preempts negotiations on the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Far from a timeout, they see Israeli cranes and bulldozers at work across the West Bank, carving up the rocky land where they hope to establish a state.
Netanyahu says Israel is only accommodating ``natural growth″ and is not building new settlements.
But entire new communities are springing up outside the barbed wire fences of existing West Bank settlements. For instance, there is ``Mattityahu North,″ between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where thousands of apartments are being built across a highway and a few miles from the Mattityahu settlement.
Moshe Eilat, a Housing Ministry spokesman, said the new neighborhoods are a result of the government’s ``extension policy,″ which he described as a substitute for creating new settlements.
Dozens of other settlements are expanding by leapfrogging to hilltops a half-mile or more away, where they first place trailer parks, then eventually build houses.
Construction is heaviest in the settlements around Jerusalem _ extending past the Palestinian cities of Ramallah to the north and Bethlehem to the south _ and along the ``Green Line″ that marks Israel’s pre-1967 border. Almost all the building is privately financed.
Referring to U.S. and Palestinian calls for a freeze in settlement building, Sondra Oster Baras of the Ariel settlement said, ``Nobody has the right to stop us from building and growing.″ Land is being cleared for 400 new houses in Ariel, 15 miles north of Jerusalem.
While some settlement officials gave the AP information about construction, many others refused, or lied about whether building was taking place.
In the northern settlement of Alfei Menashe, where workers were busy building a cluster of 18 two-family houses, settlement officials told the AP that no construction was going on.
Israeli contractors and Palestinian construction workers, who ironically are building most of the new homes in the settlements, were more forthcoming.
With Israel in the midst of negotiations on how much land to turn over to the Palestinians, and talks on the final status of the West Bank and Gaza scheduled to be completed by May 1999, each new house makes it less likely that the land beneath will ever be vacated by Israel.
``It is a systematic, stepped-up campaign to confiscate more land,″ said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian self-rule Cabinet. ``They will build enough settlements to fill the West Bank with Israelis, and then there won’t be a need for final status negotiations.″
Jad Isaac, who runs a Palestinian research institute on settlements in Bethlehem, said Israel doesn’t want anyone to know how much building is going on ``because they’re trying to create facts on the ground before final status negotiations begin.″
Palestinians accuse Israel of trying to ``cantonize″ the West Bank _ expanding settlements to break up its geographical continuity and make it impossible for the Palestinians to establish a viable state.
For example, Maale Adumim, a mega-settlement of 20,000 residents east of Jerusalem, is spreading across the desert toward Palestinian-controlled Jericho, with 1,000 new homes under construction. Efrat, where 300 red-roofed houses are going up on a rocky hilltop, snakes north to the very edges of Bethlehem.
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert said the government expects all the settlements around Jerusalem _ including the Gush Etzion bloc south of Bethlehem _ to become part of Israel if not the city itself.
Palestinians also consider Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in 1967 and later annexed, to be settlements. They rioted when Israel broke ground last March for the 6,500-unit Har Homa neighborhood.
Netanyahu repeatedly refers to the need to meet the needs of ``natural growth,″ a characterization that suggests the expansion of the settlements is very limited.
But Netanyahu’s definition of natural growth goes far beyond the birth rate _ about 3 percent a year in the settlements _ and includes thousands of people moving into the West Bank from Israel and even immigrants from overseas.
``In a democratic country, if someone wants to move from Tel Aviv to Ariel, there is nothing we can do about it,″ said David Bar-Illan, a top adviser to the prime minister. ``It’s supply and demand in a most natural way.″
Bar-Illan did not dispute the AP’s construction count, which he said was in line with expectations that the population of the settlements would continue growing at between 7 percent and 10 percent a year. There are now 150,000 settlers living in the West Bank among 1.6 million Palestinians.
However, neither Bar-Illan nor the Defense Ministry, which approves all settlement construction, could give figures on building in the West Bank.
Critics point out the Netanyahu government actively encourages Israelis to move to settlements by offering them a 7 percent income tax break and an extra 50,000-shekel ($14,000) housing loan that the previous government had largely discontinued.
The previous Labor Party governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres eliminated those incentives for most settlers, and froze the sale of thousands of apartments and houses in settlements.
The population of the settlements still grew by as much as 50 percent from 1992 to 1996, as extensive building continued around Jerusalem and in areas expected to be annexed by Israel in a final peace settlement.
But with the peace process moving ahead on other fronts, that building drew less outcry.
Under Netanyahu’s government, peace talks have ground to a halt. At the same time, Netanyahu has lifted the building and sales freeze, restored incentives to settlers and given his blessing to settlement expansion.
Settlements deep inside the West Bank _ such as Talmon, 5 miles northwest of Ramallah, where a new neighborhood of 40 houses is being built on the settlement’s western slope _ are seeing construction for the first time since 1992.
``The land of Israel is being built in front of our eyes,″ Netanyahu declared this fall. ``And that’s a good thing.″
EDITOR’S NOTE: Galit Benzur, a Jerusalem-based Associated Press reporter, contributed to this report.