Israeli settlement building picks up where it left off

ARIEL, West Bank — The sound of a drill reverberating on the small street in the West Bank settlement of Ariel seems to bother few Jewish settlers here, despite its significance for international efforts to push forward on the peace process.

On Friday, Palestinian leaders will decide whether they'll continue to participate in the U.S.-led peace talks. That decision, they said, will rest largely on how Israel moves forward with construction in the West Bank settlements.

To Palestinians, the settlement construction is a key stumbling block to the talks. The settlements are built on land earmarked for a future Palestinian state and are considered illegal under international law. Chief Palestinian negotiation Saeb Erekat said that the Palestinians consider building on the land a "slap in face" to the peace process.

Several hundred building projects have been started since Israel allowed its freeze on settlement construction to expire on Sept. 26, according to settlement leaders.

An investigation by the Hebrew daily newspaper Haaretz revealed that construction has begun on more than 350 new housing units — including 54 in Ariel, 56 in Kedumim and 56 in Karmei Tzur. The settlements of Adam, Kiryat Arba, Nariya and Mattiyahu all were listed as having from 20 to 30 new buildings each.

Activists from the anti-settlement group Peace Now said that in dozens of other settlements, there are a handful of new homes being constructed — and that it was unclear what type of building was taking place in more remote outposts.

Moshe Turjeman of Ariel, like many Jewish settlers here, said that the tractors for construction projects marked a "return to normal life."

"The rest of the world says these buildings are the reason we don't have peace. But that's an excuse. We don't have peace because none of the leaders really want peace . . . They want the pretense of it — a process," he said.

"This happens to be where I live because it's affordable. The building here is part of my everyday life," Turjeman added. "I have a neighbor who didn't have a garage for 10 months because of a so-called peace process."

Danny Dayan, a spokesman for the settlement movement, said that the new building didn't represent a "boom" but rather a "return to normalcy."

The end of the freeze came just a month after the U.S.-launched talks began.

Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell has shuttled across the Middle East trying to garner support for a compromise that would allow the talks to go forward despite the settlement issue. The U.S. had put forward an offer to Israel that would reward a three-month extension of the settlement freeze with several security promises.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering the offer, said Israeli officials. They wouldn't reveal details of the security guarantees.

A report in the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom suggested that the U.S. would improve its security relations with Israel by providing a large weapons package and additional defense contracts.

Israeli officials said, however, that the deal might still not be enough. Key members of Netanyahu's largely right-wing cabinet have threatened to topple his government if he extends the freeze by as much as one day. He also would face a rebellion by members of his own party, the Likud, which sponsored celebrations in the settlements that have resumed building.

The Palestinians appeared to have the backing of several key Arab countries if they decide not to continue the talks because of the settlement building. Egypt and Jordan have said that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas should call off talks in the wake of the current Israeli position. Even so, they urged more efforts to salvage the talks.

A poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 66 percent of Palestinians did not think talks should continue while Israel built in the settlements. Another poll, taken by the Israeli company Dahaf, found that 54 percent of Israelis said settlement building should be allowed to continue.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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