RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Even as Israel was withdrawing from the Gaza Strip last September, it was steadily expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In fact, the Jewish population of the West Bank is growing by 5 percent each year, and that has Palestinians worried that this growth will make it all but impossible to create a viable Palestinian state. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.
(Soundbite of bulldozer)
LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:
A bulldozer plows into the rocky ground on a hillside near the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Nearby, hundreds of apartments are under construction in the Jewish settlement of Bitar Ellit, about eight miles west of Jerusalem. Bitar Ellit was started in the mid-1980s but has almost doubled its population in the past five years to 26,000 settlers.
Mr. DROR ETKES (Peace Now): The most active construction site right now is there where the two cranes are. And...
GRADSTEIN: Dror Etkes monitors settlement expansion for the dovish Israeli group Peace Now. Standing on a wind-whipped hillside overlooking Bitar Ellit, Etkes says successive Israeli governments have been encouraging ultra-Orthodox Jews to move to settlements like this one.
Mr. ETKES: The Israeli government had to realize sometime at the beginning of the '80s that they can match one plus one.
GRADSTEIN: He says the ultra-Orthodox were looking for inexpensive housing and the Israeli government wanted to increase the number of Jews in the West Bank. So the government offered the ultra-Orthodox financial incentives to move to settlements. According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, the Jewish population of the West Bank has increased by more than 12,000 so far this year and more than 4,000 homes are currently in various stages of construction. Overall, about a quarter of a million Israelis now reside in the West Bank and that figure does not include more than 200,000 Israelis who live in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem. Dror Etkes says the continued expansion of the West Bank settlements is undermining the prospects of a viable Palestinian state.
Mr. ETKES: Construction of settlements is by definition a unilateral step which Israel is doing.
GRADSTEIN: Etkes says the future of the West Bank should be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians. Most of the new West Bank construction is in the settlement blocks close to the Green Line separating Israel and the West Bank, which Israel says must remain part of the Jewish state even after a final peace deal with the Palestinians. Former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Dore Gold says the Bush administration has accepted Israel's position on these settlement blocks.
Ambassador DORE GOLD (Former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations): What the United States has said is that it recognizes that ultimately when these negotiations are concluded, the only realistic outcome is that Israel retains these settlement blocks. Where there is disagreement is whether Israel should be building in the settlement blocks at present.
GRADSTEIN: According to the US-backed road map to peace, Israel is obliged to freeze all settlement construction in the West Bank and to dismantle dozens of unauthorized outposts. Dore Gold says Israel will meet those obligations when the Palestinians meet theirs.
Mr. GOLD: With respect to the Palestinians, they're supposed to begin to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure and, at a minimum, supply an unconditional cease-fire to Israel. So that we're really not even at stage one of the road map where the full freeze on Israeli settlement activity is supposed to begin.
GRADSTEIN: Israeli officials acknowledge there have been some tensions with the Bush administration over an 8-square-mile section of the West Bank between Jerusalem and the settlement of Maale Adumim. Israeli officials say they have promised the Bush administration they will not build residential housing in the area, known as the E1. But they have sealed off the area and they are preparing to build a police station there. Danny Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer and peace activist, says an Israeli decision to build an E1 would make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible.
Mr. DANNY SEIDEMANN (Attorney and Peace Activist): An E1 will, number one, seal East Jerusalem from its natural environs in the West Bank, and number two, dismember the West Bank into cantons, into a northern canton, Ramallah and north, and a southern canton, of Bethlehem and south, both of which are disconnected from East Jerusalem and both of which are disconnected from one another.
GRADSTEIN: Israeli officials say if the Palestinian Authority dismantles the terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel will abide by its commitments to the road map. But until then, they say, construction in the West Bank will continue. Linda Gradstein, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.