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Israel boosts rate of settlements since end of freeze

Jewish settlers have started building 1,649 new homes -- more than making up for the 10-month ban, according to the settlement watchdog, Peace Now.

JERUSALEM // Settlers have begun building new homes at a furious pace since the end of a construction freeze, a new report has revealed, as the Israeli cabinet met over plans to impose a fresh 90-day ban.

Figures published by Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now showed that in the seven weeks since the end of the moratorium on West Bank construction, Jewish settlers have started building 1,649 new homes -- more than making up for the 10-month ban.

"It turns out that the settlement freeze was no more than a 10-month delay in the construction and the settlers managed to fill in the gap very fast," Peace Now said.

"The government of Israel must renew the freeze in a way that will stop all settlement activity, including the projects that started in the last few weeks, until there is a final agreement between the Palestinians and Israel regarding the borders and the future of the settlements."

The report was published just hours before the Israeli cabinet was due to meet to discuss a US incentives package designed to persuade it to impose a new freeze in a bid to salvage moribund peace talks with the Palestinians.

The talks, which began two months ago, shuddered to a halt over renewed settlement building following the end of the ban on September 26, with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas refusing to return to the table unless Israel commits itself to a further moratorium.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far refused.

Figures in the report show the building work was carried out in 63 settlements and, in more than two-thirds of cases, settlers had begun laying the foundations of their new homes.

During 2009, construction work began on 1,888 new housing units, the report said, citing data from Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics.

"Had the construction continued at the same speed without the freeze, work would have begun on 1,574 units during the 10 months of the moratorium," Peace Now said.

"In the six weeks since the end of the moratorium, the settlers have managed to start construction on a similar number of units."

Netanyahu has spent most of the week in the United States, holding a series of meetings with senior officials, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a bid to break the deadlock.

He returned on Friday and met ministers from the Forum of Seven, his inner circle of advisers, to discuss a package of US incentives.

A source close to the negotiations said late on Saturday that the proposal would involve a 90-day settlement freeze in the occupied West Bank excluding annexed Arab east Jerusalem.

It would include a freeze on all construction started since the end of the moratorium, the source added.

The proposal would also entail a US commitment not to ask Israel for a further settlement freeze after the 90 days expires as well as US security guarantees, the source said, without elaborating on their nature.

Washington has also agreed to veto any move in the UN Security Council or any other international body designed to pressure Israel into a political settlement, the source said.

In recent weeks, the Palestinians have repeatedly threatened to approach the Security Council for recognition of an independent state in the event that peace talks fail.

But Israel has cautioned against any unilateral moves, saying the only way to peace is through a negotiated agreement -- a position backed by the United States.

The Palestinians see the settlements as a major threat to the establishment of a viable state, and they view the freezing of settlement activity as a crucial test of Israel's intentions.



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