Israel to allow expansion in settlements


ISRAEL HAS rebuffed US president Barack Obama by declaring its intention to continue building in settlements in occupied territory to accommodate “natural growth” of existing settlements.

The Israeli announcement yesterday pre-empted the meeting last night between Mr Obama and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, which appeared certain to be dominated by the settlements issue.

“Normal life” will continue and the fate of settlements will be determined in negotiations, said Israeli spokesman Mark Regev.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton on Wednesday said Mr Obama “wants to see a stop to settlements. Not some settlements, not outposts, not natural-growth exceptions”. Israel uses the term “natural growth” to describe construction to accommodate population growth.

Mr Abbas continues to refuse to negotiate with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu until he halts all settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and accepts the principle of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Mr Netanyahu proposes only to evacuate 22 settler outposts not authorised by the government in exchange for continued construction in officially sanctioned settlements. He also refuses to commit to the “two-state solution”.

Mr Abbas is taking a tough stand on settlements, deemed illegal under international law, because they are being built on land Palestinians demand for their state. There are 121 recognised settlements in the West Bank and 100 unrecognised outposts, housing a total of 285,800 Israelis.

Some 200,000 also live in East Jerusalem, which is wanted by Palestinians for their capital.

Settlement activity is escalating. During 2008 Israel built 1,518 structures compared with 800 in 2007. Israel also issued tenders to construct 1,184 new housing units in East Jerusalem compared with 793 in 2007.

In its January 2009 report, Israel’s Peace Now said that 40 per cent of land on which authorised and unauthorised settlements have been built is privately owned Palestinian land and only up to 2.5 per cent belongs to Jews. The rest expropriated for settlements has been classified as “state land” although large tracts were farmed for generations by Palestinians without being registered with the Ottoman or British authorities that ruled Palestine before the establishment of Israel.

Peace Now had earlier asserted that only 9 per cent of West Bank land under settlement jurisdiction had been built on and only 12 per cent was being utilised. In spite of the large tracts of land they hold, 90 per cent of settlements have expanded across their boundaries and 33 per cent of the territory they occupy is outside their jurisdiction.

A recent article by Uri Blau in the Israeli daily Haaretz revealed that a large proportion of construction in the settlements violates Israeli law. When Israel’s defence ministry compiled a database on settlements, Mr Blau says it found that construction in the “vast majority of settlements – about 75 per cent – has been carried out without the appropriate permits or contrary to the permits that were issued”.

The data referred not only to unauthorised outposts but also to well-established settlements with thousands of inhabitants.

Mr Blau points out that since the Ministry of Housing was primarily responsible for construction and “since many of the building violations involve infrastructure, roads, public buildings and so on, the official data . . . demonstrate government responsibility for the unrestrained planning and lack of enforcement of regulations in the territories”.