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An Unsettled Issue: Israeli Settlement Construction Booms Despite Ban

By Juliane von Mittelstaedt in Jerusalem

In Washington, the Israelis and Palestinians are discussing peace, but in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, construction is proceeding at full speed. A legal ban is being ignored and the government is looking away. The thousands of new homes could hinder reconciliation.

Photo Gallery: A Ban Won't Stop Them Photos
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Officially, at least, this is the hour of diplomacy. For the first time in two years, Israelis and Palestinians are meeting for direct peace talks. United States President Barack Obama has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Washington. Settlement construction is one of the most sensitive issues at the talks.

It's also an issue where the fronts are growing increasingly tense. "As far as we are concerned, we will continue building after we have buried our dead," Naftali Bennett, the general director of the settlers' association Yesha said hours before the start of peace talks. Just a short time after his announcement, the settlers began erecting several symbolic settlements in the West Bank. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Bennett had threatening words. "It is not good enough that the moratorium will end on Sept. 26," he said. "Ehud Barak needs to act to approve 3,000 new housing units -- 1,500 of them right now."

The message is clear: After Hamas terrorists shot four Israelis near Hebron, the settlers no longer want to adhere to the 10-month construction stop that expires at the end of September. An army commander told the newspaper Maariv that the settlers threatened to "flood" the West Bank "with thousands of homes." He said he was concerned that dozens of cement mixers would drive in at night to pour the walls and that there was nothing the military could do to stop it.

And why should they if they have the impression that the government doesn't even support the moratorium?

Construction work could soon begin again in 57 settlements. The peace talks that began on Thursday with an official reception thrown by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won't change that. After all, construction of settlements also continued during previous rounds of peace talks. From the start of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s until today, the number of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank has tripled -- growing from 110,000 to more than 300,000 people living in 121 settlements and 100 outposts. In addition to that there are 200,000 more settlers in East Jerusalem.

The Land Is Practically Free

Construction may even proceed at a faster pace than before. In the West Bank, there are few signs that the moratorium has even been put in place. In dozens of settlements, excavators and cement mixers are a regular sight, and Palestinians work in temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Around 2,000 homes are currently under construction -- and in most cases, work had begun shortly before or after the start of the moratorium.

One such place is Anatot, a settlement near Jerusalem, that is dotted with flower beds, trees, cute street signs at every entranceway and a street lamp every few meters. Anatot is the perfect suburban idyll. And it's just one of many settlements where inhabitants can quickly forget that they are settlers.

Now there are plans to expand Anatot. A new neighborhood is being erected with 70 apartments, as the construction manager proudly states. The settlement is being expanded by one-third from its current population of around 200 families.

A few of the new homes have already been completed. They're attractive cubes build of creamy white Jerusalem sandstone. A colorful sign at the entrance to Anatot advertises "cottages with quality of life." It's a dream that costs 1.02 to 1.4 million shekel (around €280,000) -- less expensive than a small apartment in West Jerusalem. The construction in the West Bank is massively subsidized by Israel. The land is practically free. After all, it is "state" land. The development costs are paid by the state, and the residents get affordable loans.

Nevertheless, construction is not actually permitted here. The building project is not included in the list of 490 "legal exceptions" which the government managed to make to the settlement moratorium.

The Moratorium 'Was a Fiction Right from the Outset'

"The construction boom here began shortly before the building freeze," says Dror Etkes, who is perhaps the Israeli who knows the most about the settlements. For years he has been documenting settlement construction and submitting complaints against illegal projects.

Etkes is sure that active construction is taking place in at least 46 out of 120 settlements. Building projects have only actually been frozen in five settlements, he says. Even government inspectors have found violations of the moratorium in 29 settlements. So far, however, no construction firm has been called to account over those violations. That is despite the fact that the building freeze, for the first time in Israeli history, is not just a "political" requirement, but is actually enshrined in law -- meaning that any violation should be legally punished.

Additionally, infrastructure projects are not included in the building moratorium. As a result, a number of sewage treatment plants and water reservoirs are being built in settlements -- including on Palestinian land. In Beitar Illit, a new road is being built.

Neither were the associated financial incentives -- the only reason that many Israelis choose to live in the West Bank -- affected by the moratorium. Those benefits include cheap loans, subsidized rents, tax breaks and countless other perks, all of which could easily be cancelled.

"The difference between the level of construction before and during the moratorium is much, much less than the settlers claim," says Etkes. "It's not just that the building freeze has been undermined -- it was a fiction right from the outset." One of the consequences, he says, has been that construction activities have become even more focused on the eastern settlements -- in other words, those small, isolated and often radical settlements that would need to be evacuated if a peace agreement were reached. It is expected that the inhabitants of those settlements would defend themselves with force against such a move.

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