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Settlement expansion seeing biggest boost since 2003

Amos Harel | Ha’aretz

7 May 2009

West Bank construction has been accelerating for several months, putting Israel on a collision course with a U.S. administration taking a hard line on settlement expansion.

A new outpost, new roads, and other building projects have raced ahead in and around the settlements, often without legal permits, producing the biggest construction drive since 2003, according to Dror Etkes of the Israeli advocacy group Yesh Din. That group monitors construction in the West Bank.

The construction, which has sped up even more since Benjamin Netanyahu’s government took office this spring, is to be a main issues in U.S. President Barack Obama’s meeting with Netanyahu at mid-month.

Vice President Joe Biden called on Israel on Tuesday to stop building in the settlements and to dismantle existing illegal outposts. However, left-wing groups monitoring events in the territories say the construction has accelerated in recent months, not halted.

Examples include the following:

Construction in outposts: Between Talmon and Nahliel, west of Ramallah, a stone house and another structure have been built without a permit, next to a vineyard set up by settlers a year and a half ago. The Israel Defense Forces’ civil administration has recently issued an order to stop the project.

Illegal construction has been carried out on Palestinian land at the outposts Mitzpeh Ahiya and Adei-Ad, north of Ramallah. A mobile home has been set in an outpost near Susia south of Hebron. An outpost that was vacated near Hebron has been reinstated.

Construction east of the separation fence: New houses have been built in the Eli settlement, Rechelim, Ma’aleh Michmash and Kochav Hashahar (north and east of Ramallah). In addition, a neighborhood has been built in Na’ale, and there are at least 10 houses in Halamish and new houses in Talmon (all west of Ramallah).

Construction west of the planned fence route: Land has been prepared for building in the Kedar settlement, and 30 houses have been built in Ma’aleh Shomron. There is also a new neighborhood in both the Elkana and Zofim settlements.

Road construction and farmland: This has gone on near the Bracha settlement south of Nablus, near Tapuach, in the Eli and Shiloh area and in the Amona and Elazar settlements.

The accelerated construction stems mainly from the reduced supervision of events in the territories in the last stages of the Olmert government, while Netanyahu’s right-wing government, part of which supports the construction, hasn’t begun to address the issue.

The settlers also took advantage of the public and media attention’s focus on Gaza during the IDF offensive in January to continue the settlements and outposts’ expansion in the territories.

Israel is officially committed to the promise made by former prime minister Ariel Sharon to the Bush administration to evacuate all illegal outposts built after March 2001. But evacuations have been carried out languidly and with long intervals.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently reached an agreement with the settlers to evacuate the largest outpost, Migron, and transfer it to the nearby settlement Adam. But the agreement has yet to be implemented.

The Mitchell Report of May 2001 and the Bush administration’s road map of 2003 called on Israel to halt all construction in the settlements. This implies stopping construction for natural growth as well. Israel, however, has never stopped this kind of construction.

Sharon’s government reached a tacit agreement with the Bush administration to reduce construction east of the separation fence. Israel kept this promise until recently, when building resumed there as well, mostly without legal permits.

The extensive and often illegal construction west of the fence and in the large settlements has been going on continuously. The authorities have not tried to stop it even in cases of illegal construction, says Etkes.

The defense minister’s bureau said Barak supports evacuating outposts not because of promises to the Americans but to maintain the rule of law. Every new outpost is evacuated immediately, Barak’s aides said. The minister is not under the impression that the construction of illegal outposts and settlements has accelerated, they said.