x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Israeli settlement building four times pre-freeze rate

Building has begun on at least 544 new settlers' homes, many on land that under most scenarios for a peace settlement would be part of a Palestinian state.

JERUSALEM // In the three weeks since the 10-month moratorium on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank ended, building has begun on at least 544 new settlers' homes – a rate more than four times faster than the past two years, two reports revealed yesterday.

Many of the new homes are being built on land that under most proposed scenarios for a peace settlement would be part of a Palestinian state, said the surveys, which were carried out by the Associated Press and Peace Now, the Israeli settlement watchdog.

Peace Now put the number of housing starts at up to 700. A spokesman, Hagit Ofran, said: "In our estimation, building has started on between 600 and 700 new housing units in less than one month, which is four times the pace of construction since before the freeze."

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the evidence gathered by the two organisations suggested an unprecedented settlement building boom in the Israeli occupied West Bank.

The only basis for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, he said, was a complete cessation of construction in the roughly 120 Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

"The question we have to ask ourselves is, what sort of moratorium and situation will we be talking about after all these new houses are all built? We don't want a situation where people come to ask us, 'Let us build 1,000 more units, and then there will be a moratorium'," he said.

Mahmoud Abbas,the president of the Palestinian Authority, has repeatedly threatened to quit talks over Israel's refusal to resume the freeze on settlement construction. This month Mr Abbas and other Arab leaders, meeting in Libya, gave the Obama administration one month to rescue the talks.

Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, played down the significance of yesterday's reports of accelerated settlement building.

"The proposed Israeli building is limited in scope and will in no way impact upon the final contours of a peace agreement that we believe is achievable," he said.

Despite reports of a generous package of inducements offered by the United States in return for an extension of the settlement freeze, Mr Netanyahu and his pro-settler cabinet have so far declined.

A recent opinion poll of Israeli attitudes towards democracy indicates why there are few political incentives for the Israeli leader to heed pressure from dovish Israelis or the international community.

According to the survey, published last weekend, more than a third – 37 per cent – of Israelis polled want to deny non-Jewish citizens voting rights, and almost seven out of ten support proposed legislation requiring a loyalty pledge from non-Jews to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state".

Even before the latest revelations of accelerated settlement construction, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, had cautioned the two sides to avoid inflammatory behaviour.

"We are urging both sides to avoid any actions that would undermine trust or prejudice the outcomes of the talks," she said in Washington on Wednesday.

Mrs Clinton said the US special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, would soon be dispatched to the region in another attempt at ending the current stalemate.

However, in her speech to the American Task Force on Palestine, a group that advocates a two-state solution, she appeared bereft of ideas for getting the two sides back to the negotiating table.

"I cannot stand here tonight and tell you there is some magic formula that I have discovered that will break through the current impasse," she said.

"But I can tell you we are working every day, sometimes every hour, to create the conditions for negotiations to continue and succeed."

As well as warning against Israeli settlement expansion, Mr Clinton's remarks may also have been aimed at stopping the Palestinians from asking the United Nations to establish a Palestinian state or declaring one on their own. To the alarm of Israel, Palestinian officials have recently been floating both ideas.

In the results of an opinion poll released yesterday, Palestinian leaders appear to have broad support from their public to continue to pursue both options if direct peace talks with Israel fail.

Almost seven out of every ten Palestinians surveyed said they would endorse a Palestinian plan to ask the UN Security Council to recognise a Palestinian state. Just over half, 54 per cent, said they would support the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state. Slightly more, 57 per cent were opposed to resuming an armed intifada.

The study, which polled 1,270 Palestinians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem between September 30 and October 7, was conducted by the Harry S Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.

hnaylor@thenational.ae

With additional reporting by Sharmila Devi in Washington and Jonathan Cook in Nazareth