ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In the Middle East, a group that monitors Israeli settlement construction says that Jewish building in the occupied West Bank is booming. Direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians have been suspended over the settlements issue. 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.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.
(Soundbite of bulldozer)
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Friday is not normally a workday in the Middle East, but in the settlement of Adam this afternoon, a bulldozer was busy leveling ground for a new sports center.
Yehuda Knobloch is the deputy head of the Adam Council.
Mr. YEHUDA KNOBLOCH (Deputy Head, Adam Council): The time that we waited - the time of the freeze - there was no building. The demand is still there, and we have to catch up.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says 1,300 families live in Adam now and more want to move here. It's close to Jerusalem and offers a more affordable place to live.
Mr. KNOBLOCH: The rest of the settlement has right now another 26 units going up. 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 go hit the market.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Here and elsewhere in the settlement, 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.
Ms. HAGIT OFRAN (Director, Settlement Watch, Peace Now): We saw about 70 new housing units start in Kedumim, 6 kilometers away from Nablus. We see 56 new housing units in Karmei Tzur, which is 2 kilometers north of Hebron. It's the heart of the West Bank. It seems that the settlers are building wherever they can and as much as they can.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Israel's government contends that settlements are not an obstacle to peace. They're urging Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table.
The Palestinians say construction on land they want as 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 Arab-Israeli 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 heads the Yesha Council, a settler group. He says building will continue.
Mr. NAFTALI BENNETT (Chief Executive Officer, Yesha Council): We think it's ridiculous to count the number of apartments that Jews are building in our land. We - 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 - almost a year.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nearby, in the Palestinian village of Hizme, Ibrahim Salahadin points to the several settlements that ring the village. He describes this Palestinian area as an outpost.
Mr. IBRAHIM SALAHADIN: Like island in the center of the sea.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: 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.
Mr. SALAHADIN: (Through Translator) I think we are fooling ourselves with the concept of negotiation. They will give us nothing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: 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.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.
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