DEBBIE ELLIOTT, Host:
One other sticking point in relations is Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The Jewish population there grew by more than 5 percent last year. Despite an Israeli promise not to expand Jewish settlements, construction in many settlements is continuing. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports from the West Bank.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION)
LINDA GRADSTEIN: Outside the supermarket, Osnat Fema(ph), a mother of six, says this settlement doesn't feel any different than an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood inside Israel, which is less than three miles away. She says the only difference is that housing prices are significantly cheaper.
OSNAT FEMA: (Through translator) It's a city of Torah and a good place to raise our children in a religious environment. Also, buying apartments here is cheaper, and that's important. Families have a lot of children, and most of the men don't work but study Torah all day, so the money is important.
GRADSTEIN: Drora Edkus(ph), who tracks settlements for Peace Now, says that most of the new construction is in settlements that are relatively close to the Israeli border on the western side of the barrier that Israel is building in and around the West Bank.
DRORA EDKUS: Once the barrier is constructed, so people tend to see it as a future promise that this settlement will remain also in Israel, and therefore it's accelerated this process.
GRADSTEIN: Bethlehem's Palestinian mayor, Hana Nasir, says settlements around Bethlehem and the barrier are strangling the city. He says the ongoing settlement expansion threatens any future peace deal with Israel.
HANA NASIR: These settlements now, they are dozens, and they are cutting the West Bank into bits and pieces, and there is no more any chance for a viable Palestinian state would be created in the future.
GRADSTEIN: Settler spokesman Yusrael Maidad(ph) says settlers believe that all of the West Bank should remain under Jewish control.
YUSRAEL MAIDAD: We see the historical pattern of increasing the Jewish population there, of ensuring Israel's security by doing so, by trying to make sure that our second and third generation continue to live there, by drawing in additional sectors of Israel's population, and actually making that piece of territory as much of Israel as physically possible.
GRADSTEIN: That contradicts the U.S.-backed road map to peace, which Israel and the Palestinians accepted four years ago. The road map calls on Israel to end settlement expansion, and on Palestinians to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. Israeli officials interpret that to mean that natural growth or building houses for children who've grown up in the settlement is allowed. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev says Israel has not violated its commitments.
MARK REGEV: One, we are not building new settlements. Two, we're not taking over Arab-controlled land for the purpose of constructing, for building new settlements or for expanding existing ones. Three, we're not outwardly expanding existing settlements. They're the three principles.
GRADSTEIN: Uri Dromi at the Israel Democracy Institute says with the election of the Islamist Hamas to run the Palestinian government, Israeli plans of a West Bank pullout have become more complicated. He says Israel is also facing more urgent issues.
URI DROMI: The public agenda in Israel, the public discourse, is so saturated with burning issues - corruption, stability of the government, the Iranian threat, Hezbollah, Hamas - people are too overwhelmed with these problems to worry about the long-range demographic or settlement issue.
GRADSTEIN: But, says Dromi, in any future peace deal with the Palestinians Israel will eventually have to dismantle many of the settlements, and building new homes there every year will only make that process more difficult. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Modi'in Illit on the West Bank.
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