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Washington Post: "Mutual Dismay Over Jewish Settlements"

"...according to Hagit Ofran, settlement expert for the Israeli advocacy group Peace Now, ...the development would 'isolate East Jerusalem and cut the northern West Bank from the southern West Bank'."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Israeli Premier Seeks To Balance Growth

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Servicepeace now

GIVAT ZEEV, West Bank -- Under a scorching May sun, workers chip away at a cliff that will soon yield to a settlement for ultra-Orthodox Jews.

A few miles away, Jewish families prepare to move into new homes with sweeping views of a verdant West Bank valley. And in an East Jerusalem neighborhood that has long been a heart of Palestinian life, settlers are figuring out how to transform a former police station into a new community.

Despite Israeli commitments to end settlement expansion, both planning and construction are moving forward every day across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In the six months since negotiations resumed between Israel and the Palestinians, settlements have remained a sore point.

To Palestinians, the expansion of settlements represents proof that Israel is not serious about wanting a deal. Palestinian Authority leaders say settlement construction undermines their position of talking with Israel, rather than fighting it, and gives ammunition to extremists.

"We're becoming the joke of the town because of these settlement activities," said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator.

But to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his allies, the construction is simply a matter of the Jewish state putting to good use land it will inevitably control under a future agreement.

Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, said that since the Annapolis conference in November that relaunched the peace talks, Olmert has not allowed any new construction in the West Bank without his personal authorization, and he has been judicious in what he has approved.

"This government has done more than any previous Israeli government to bring under control unchecked growth in the settlements," Regev said.

In trying to strike a balance, however, Olmert has won few friends. Palestinian leaders and international observers criticize Israel for allowing the construction to continue, despite an Israeli pledge in the 2003 "road map" to peace to halt all settlement activity.

The settlers themselves, meanwhile, have cursed the prime minister for making it harder for them to build.

At stake is the future of land that has been in dispute since 1967, when Israeli forces conquered Arab territory -- and soon thereafter began to settle it. East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel, although that decision has not been recognized internationally. The West Bank, meanwhile, remains under military occupation. Israel withdrew from its Gaza Strip settlements in 2005.

The Palestinian nation, when and if it is created, will include the West Bank and Gaza, with Palestinians hoping to secure East Jerusalem as their capital. But they say the constant settlement construction is eating away at their hopes of creating a viable state, leaving them with, as Bir Zeit University professor Ali Jarbawi describes it, "a state of leftovers."

Here in Givat Zeev, a settlement just northwest of Jerusalem, 750 new apartments are rising in a hillside enclave that sits a mile from the existing settlement. Standing on the construction site, Givat Zeev's current houses appear as little more than a collection of tiny red roofs on a distant horizon.

A sign at the entrance to the site welcomes visitors to the "New Upper" Givat Zeev and promises "exclusive apartments with high building standards." It also guarantees that the company doing the work is one that "observes the Sabbath."

That's important, because unlike Givat Zeev's current residents, many of whom are secular, the new community is reserved for the ultra-Orthodox -- the fastest-growing segment of Israel's population.

In Betar Illit, an ultra-Orthodox settlement on Jerusalem's outskirts, Mayor Meir Rubinstein said he can hardly keep up with his city's growth. "The last time I counted, we have 39,000 people here. Maybe now it's 40,000 or 41,000," he said. "Every day in Betar, a few more are born. Sixty-three percent of the city is under the age of 18. "

That statistic comes to life on the city's immaculately landscaped streets and sidewalks, where kids run in all directions and the sound of their giggles mingles with the clang of a jackhammer.

Several new apartment buildings are going up on the city's outskirts, and there are more to come: Olmert has promised one of his coalition partners, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, that there will soon be 800 more housing units in Betar Illit. Final approval was being withheld until after President Bush's recent visit to Israel.

Miriam and Chaim Levi, along with their four children, are among those moving into the new development. "It's expensive to live in Jerusalem," said Chaim Levi. "In Betar Illit you can find an apartment at a reasonable price. And there's no reason why we shouldn't live here."

The Levis were visiting the city to measure progress on their new apartment, which is still being built. All around them, Palestinian workers banged nails and sanded stone -- putting the finishing touches on a building where they will be unwelcome once it's complete.

In Givat Zeev, too, Palestinians do the work.

"We are forced to do this. There are no other jobs," said Mahmoud Yassin, 40.

For Yassin, the continued growth of the settlements has been upsetting to him as a Palestinian, but rewarding as a father. He used to make 50 shekels, or about $15, a day doing odd jobs in the West Bank town of Jenin. But he gets paid 190 shekels a day to help lay the foundations of the Givat Zeev expansion.

Not every plan for settlement construction is gaining approval.

In Maale Adumim, a settlement due east of Jerusalem, there are long-standing plans to build homes for 3,500 families on an adjacent tract of land. But those plans are being blocked, in part because of pressure from Washington.

The concern, according to Hagit Ofran, settlement expert for the Israeli advocacy group Peace Now, is that the development would "isolate East Jerusalem and cut the northern West Bank from the southern West Bank."

The settlement's mayor, Benny Kashriel, rejects that view and blames the United States for forcing Olmert to halt construction on land that has already been apportioned to Israel under several proposed peace deals. "Condoleezza Rice is now the prime minister. She is determining what's good for Israel," Kashriel said.

Still, there have lately been signs that the freeze won't last. Earlier this spring, a police station opened in the middle of the planned community. It is surrounded by barren hillsides, but a six-lane highway runs right to it, indicating more development will follow.

Meanwhile, the old police station, in nearby East Jerusalem, has been vacated. Settlers are poised to move in.

The station is in the Palestinian neighborhood of Ras al-Amud and is just a short walk from sites holy to both Jews and Muslims in the Old City. It sits directly across the street from an apartment complex built for Jews several years ago that is now being expanded.

Hisham Goul, a 40-year-old Palestinian resident and shop owner, said he has been trying to expand his own home, on his own land, for more than a decade. Despite spending the equivalent of thousands of dollars on architects and permit applications, Israeli officials won't let him build.

That's why he plans to greet the neighborhood's newest residents with something less than open arms.

"They don't want to be my neighbors," Goul said. "They want to ruin me."