A human rights group says existing West Bank colonies are being expanded, while several new ones have sprung up.
Settlement expansion 'accelerates'
RAMALLAH // Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank is accelerating in a manner not witnessed since 2003 and with little government oversight, according to Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group.
Several settlement outposts have been established since the end of 2008, according to the group, in clear transgression of the US-sponsored road map for peace, while construction in existing settlements is booming. The news is likely to put further strain on Israel-US relations ahead of the visit of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to Washington later this month. Last week Joe Biden, the US vice president, called on Israel to halt the construction of settlements as well as dismantle so-called settlement outposts, settlements established without the Israeli government's permission. According to international law, all settlements in occupied territory are illegal.
But settlement construction, never frozen, has picked up pace in recent months, according to Yesh Din, beginning towards the end of the Ehud Olmert government and speeding up under Mr Netanyahu, whose coalition has not signalled any intent to clamp down on such construction. "What's new is the number of sites outside the borders of existing settlements, in some cases far away from settlements, and the amount of land that settlers are targeting," said Dror Etkes of Yesh Din. "I haven't seen this kind of daring [from settlers] since 2003. It's an unprecedented assault on West Bank land."
New settlement outposts have sprung up, especially around the road that heads north from Jerusalem to Jenin, past Ramallah and Nablus, said Mr Etkes. West of Israel's separation barrier, large stretches of which are built inside occupied territory and therefore illegal under international law according to a 2004 advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice, whole neighbourhoods have been added to existing settlements.
Mr Etkes said the acceleration in settlement construction could be traced back to the beginning of Israel's war on Gaza, in Dec 2008, during which attention was focused elsewhere. After that, Israel's general elections in February resulted in protracted coalition talks, which meant there was little government oversight. "All these events allowed settlers to take advantage and go out and do what they wanted to do." The 2001 Mitchell report, named after George Mitchell, the new US Middle East peace envoy, and the 2003 road map plan for peace, which was based on the Mitchell report's recommendations, both call on Israel to halt all settlement construction, including in existing settlements, and dismantle settlement outposts.
Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister, is widely understood to have reached a tacit agreement with the George W Bush administration that the US would not protest about Israeli construction west of the separation barrier. Israel maintains that it should be allowed to cater for the "natural expansion" of existing settlements. The Barack Obama administration, however, has maintained that Israel is bound by the road map to halt all such construction.
"Israel has to work toward a two-state solution," Mr Biden said on Tuesday to delegates of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington. "You're not going to like my saying this but [do] not build more settlements; dismantle existing outposts and allow Palestinians freedom of movement." Palestinians see settlement construction as the major reason for the failure of the Oslo process. Settlement expansion grew at an unprecedented rate after the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, nearly doubling in number in a few months. Since then, Israel has made clear its intention to keep hold of so-called settlement blocs, clusters of large settlements, in any agreement with the Palestinians.