TEL AVIV // One fifth of the built-up areas in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank are located on private Palestinian land, an Israeli human rights group said yesterday, contradicting official Israeli claims that those communities were not constructed on Palestinian-owned property. In a report that analysed aerial photographs and governmental maps and data, B'Tselem also said that the municipal jurisdiction of the more than 200 settlements altogether already covers over 42 per cent of the West Bank, their control facilitated by a complex Israeli bureaucratic and legal system.
B'Tselem said that the built-up area of those settlements, however, accounts for just one per cent of the West Bank, in effect leaving much room for expansion. Such findings are just the latest demonstration of what activists claim is Israel's land-grab in occupied territory that is making the Palestinians' goal of establishing their own sovereign state increasingly unattainable. The report's release on the same day as a much-awaited White House meeting between Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Barack Obama, the US president, could prove diplomatically damaging for the Israeli leader. Mr Netanyahu, who heads a predominantly right-wing, pro-settler coalition, has struggled to persuade Israel's western allies of his support for the two-state solution in a bid to win their backing for tougher action against the nuclear ambitions of Iran, Israel's arch-enemy.
But B'Tselem and other rights groups claim that the government of Mr Netanyahu has continued the tradition set by its predecessors in attempting to gain control of as much land as possible in the West Bank in hopes that Israel would retain most of those areas under any peace agreement with the Palestinians. B'Tselem said: "The settlement enterprise has been characterised by an instrumental, cynical and even criminal attitude toward international law, local legislation, Israeli military orders and Israeli law. This attitude enabled the continuous seizure of land from Palestinians in the West Bank."
World powers see settlements - already home to about half a million Jews, including in Arab East Jerusalem - as illegal under international law. That view, however, has done little to slow Israel's settlement growth. According to B'Tselem, the tactic most often used by Israel has been to declare or register as much as 16 per cent of West Bank territory as "state land" by manipulating an 1858 land law from the period in which the Ottomans ruled Palestine.
Indeed, the group's analysis showed that "state land" now comprises three-quarters of settlements' municipal territory and two-thirds of their built-up areas. B'Tselem said that the expansion push in recent years is reflected in the growth of the three biggest settlements - Modiin Illit, Betar Illit and Maale Adumim. Modiin Ilit, an ultra-Orthodox community of some 45,000, grew the fastest, with its built-up area soaring by 78 per cent since 2001. Within Betar Illit and Maale Adumim, the size of the built-up land jumped by 55 per cent and 34 per cent, respectively, since then.
Population growth was just as dramatic, soaring by 64 per cent in Modiin Illit since 2004, despite the pledge by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon to freeze all settlement activity under the 2003 US-backed "Road Map" peace plan. B'Tselem said that as of May 2010, 121 Jewish settlements had been constructed with authorisation from the Israeli government in the territory captured by the country during the 1967 war, while another 100 outposts had been built without state approval. Furthermore, some 12 Jewish neighbourhoods had been established on West Bank land annexed to the Jerusalem municipality after the war, in addition to the settler enclaves built within Palestinian areas in the eastern part of the city.
Any so-called settlement freeze - several have been implemented in recent years - has done little to slow the expansion pace. Indeed, despite a 10-month partial halt to settlement activity announced last November by Mr Netanyahu, activists have reported that plenty of legal loopholes were created to allow settlers to continue construction. In its report, B'Tselem said: "Since 2003, Israeli governments have several times undertaken to freeze construction in the settlements and not expand them. All the governments, including the present one, have breached these undertakings."
The longer-term effect of any halt to settlement building appears limited in most cases. Analysts expect Mr Netanyahu's government to waste no time in stepping up construction once the partial freeze expires at the end of September. Yesterday, the liberal Haaretz daily newspaper reported that local settlement authorities are already making "feverish efforts" to prepare for the construction of at least 2,700 housing units.
Mr Netanyahu, however, is unlikely to publicly acknowledge such efforts as he tries to mitigate tensions with Washington on Israel's settlement policies. Seeking governmental comment on its report, B'Tselem said that the Israeli justice ministry told the group that it will not respond "in light of [the document's] political nature." @Email:email@example.com