Rise In Jewish Settlements Stalls Middle East Talks

Building on a settlement in Kiryat Arba near Hebron i i

A new section is added to the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, close to the West Bank town of Hebron, on Oct. 17. Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images
Building on a settlement in Kiryat Arba near Hebron

A new section is added to the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, close to the West Bank town of Hebron, on Oct. 17.

Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images

Jewish building in the occupied West Bank is booming, according to a group that monitors Israeli settlement construction — and the issue has stalled direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

Israel has so far refused to extend a moratorium on building that expired three weeks ago. Palestinians say while construction continues they won't sit down to negotiate.

On Friday — not normally a workday in the Middle East — a bulldozer was busy leveling ground for a new sports center in the settlement of Adam.

"The time that we waited — the time of the [construction] freeze — there was no building," says Yehuda Knobloch, head of the Adam Council. "The demand is still there and we have to catch up."

Knobloch says 1,300 families live in Adam now and more want to move there. It's close to Jerusalem and offers a more affordable place to live.

"The rest of the settlement has right now 26 units going up," Knobloch says. "The demand is high in all of Israel. There is not a lot of land. Prices of real estate are really high right now. They'll be sold out once they hit the market."

Here and elsewhere in the settlements, construction is proceeding at a breakneck speed.

According to Peace Now, an activist organization that monitors settlement activity, at least 600 units have gone up in the West Bank in the past three weeks, outpacing construction for the same period last year.

Peace Now's Hagit Ofran says much of the construction is in settlements deep inside the West Bank. "We saw 70 new housing units in Kedumim, about 6 kilometers away from Nablus," Ofran says. "We see 56 new housing units ... north of Hebron in the heart of the West Bank. It seems that the settlers are building wherever they can and as much as they can."

Israel's government contends that settlements are not an obstacle to peace. It is urging Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table.

The Palestinians say construction on land they want as a part of their future state must stop before they resume direct talks. Some 500,000 Jews live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas seized during the 1967 Six-Day War.

The United States is trying to broker a deal that will see another settlement freeze put in place for at least two months.

Naftali Bennett, who heads the Yesha Council, a settlers' group, says building will continue. "We think it's ridiculous to count the number of apartments that Jews are building in our land," Bennett says. "But we are building at a natural pace — in the hundreds of apartments — which makes pretty much sense because we've had a block for the past year."

In the nearby Palestinian village of Hizme, Ibrahim Salahadin points to the several settlements that ring the village. He describes this Palestinian area as an outpost — an "island in the center of [the] sea."

There are some 120 settlements in the West Bank. Palestinians say their expanding presence makes an independent Palestinian state impossible.

Switching to Arabic, Ibrahim says he agrees with the Palestinian position that there should be no direct talks unless the building stops. "I think we are fooling ourselves with the concept of negotiations," he says. "They will give us nothing."

As the impasse continues, positions on both sides are hardening. In Adam and Hizme, Arab and Jewish residents say the same thing: The only thing the other side understands is force.

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