Felice Friedson, Arieh O'Sullivan
The Media Line (Analysis)
September 18, 2011 - 12:00am

Meir Rubinstein pulls out a directive from Israel’s Defense Ministry that brought to a halt of construction of 210 apartments last year. The mayor of Beitar Illit, the most populous Jewish community in land acquired by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, Rubinstein says he needs to build at least 1,000 units a year just to keep up with demand.

“There was a freeze for the past five or six years. Twice there was an approval for 300 units so instead of 6,000 apartments – every year we need 1,000 flats – we got just 600, just 10%,” Rubinstein told The Media Line.

Nearly a year after the Israeli government lifted a 10-month ban on housing construction in land acquired in 1967, there’s a building boom underway. It comes as peace talks remained deadlocked and the Palestinians are seeking unilateral recognition of their state by the United Nations.

Rubinstein and other mayors and community leaders say they are eager to build new houses and apartments, so eager that since the building freeze ended last October organizations like Peace Now, which monitors construction, assert they are constructing homes at twice the per capita rate of the rest of the country.

Under pressure form the U.S., Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu froze construction in the communities for 10 months between January-October 2010 in a bid to bring the Palestinians back to the peace negotiating table. It didn’t work and the Palestinians said building never stopped completely. They see the settlements as an obstacle to peace since they are on land they want for their future state.

“We cannot sit idle and watch Israel expanding every day by annexing more Palestinian territory to theirs, buy building more settlements, by creating more facts on the ground, by changing realities and by making the two-state solution option an obsolete one, a non viable one,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Al-Maki told The Media Line.

“With their construction of settlements and changes when Israel decides one day to sit and negotiate with the Palestinians there will be nothing left to negotiate about,” he said.

It’s a charge dismissed by Netanyahu’s spokesman, who says the prime minister has done more than any previous Israeli government in showing restraint on the sensitive issues of the settlements.

“We were the first government in the history of Israel to impose a 10-month settlement freeze,” says Mark Regev, spokesman for the prime minister. “The idea was to provide an impetus for the Palestinians to return to negotiations. Unfortunately they refused to. Today the government of Israel is building no new settlements and the only construction we are allowing is inside existing built up areas. We are not taking over any disputed land. We aren’t outwardly expanding communities. We are meeting the needs of people inside those communities and, if you will allow me, we are doing so in a very minimalistic manner. The mayors of those communities, the leaders of those communities in the West Bank are extremely critical of my government. They say we are not doing enough to allow those communities to develop.”

Asked by The Media Line why the Palestinians didn’t resume negotiations during the 10-month freeze, Al-Malki says the deal was never made with them.

“We were not the only players here. Israel did not deliver the freeze to us. They gave it to the Americans. We waited and nothing really happened,” Al-Malki says.

Israel began building in the West Bank after it captured the territory from Jordan in the 1967 war. Today some 321,000 Israelis live there in 160 towns, villages and cities, the bulk in four major settlement blocs. Since the building freeze ended last October, Peace Now has identified 2,598 building starts, one for every 123 residents compared with one for every 235 in Israel.

In Ma’aleh Adumim, a city of some 39,000 east of Jerusalem, Palestinian laborers are working feverishly to complete apartment buildings. A swank city of fine trim gardens and a glitzy mall, it goes by the slogan “Quality of life above all.” But Mayor Benny Kashriel says he’s frustrated.

“Ma’aleh Adumim has not expanded. Nothing has been increased. We have enough land to build for young couples and we are just waiting for the government to keep their promises and to let us build for at least our young couples who have been born here for the natural growth of our community,” Kashriel told The Media Line. “We are very, very angry that our government doesn’t do it. The people are very angry and our prime minister knows it.”

In an effort to reach a compromise with the Palestinians, who want to establish their state inside the pre-1967 line, the concept was raised that would leave major concentrations of Jewish communities in the territories inside Israel. In return Israel would give the future Palestinian state an equal amount of its land.

According to Palileaks, confidential documents leaked to Al-Jazeera television earlier this year, Palestinian leaders agreed. These blocs included Kashriel’s Ma’aleh Adumim, Rubinstein’s Beitar Ilit and the Gush Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem.

Beitar Ilit is a few hundred meters from the pre-967 ceasefire. Demand outweighs supply in this community of 40,000 ultra Orthodox Israelis of whom two third are under the age of 18. The cacophony of school children at a school playground echoes into the windows of the mayor’s office.

“We didn’t come here to clash with Arabs or with rightists or leftists. We simply live here and want to continue living here …of course with respect and neighborliness,” Rubinstein told The Media Line. “We have land in the middle of the city. It belongs to the Palestinians and they come in every day to work their land. We even built them a special access tunnel to their land at the cost of millions. This is how we should be living, without bothering the other.”

In Kedumim, a community of 900 families not far from Nablus, local leaders say they have only built 50 homes since the freeze was lifted, but they are in the midst of completing another 100.

“We have asked for hundreds more so we can continue to plan our community but [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak has not given permission,” town head Hananel Dorani, told The Media Line.

The Israeli government says it has shown restraint, but the Peace Now report on the accelerated pace of settlement building came as hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets calling for more affordable housing and criticizing the high cost of living.

“We believe that any construction in the settlements is bad for Israel because we will eventually have to evict the settlements and have a two-state solution, which this is good for Israel. Construction in settlements is bad for Israel,” says Haggit Ofran, Peace Now Settlement Watch director.

“We wanted to make the numbers clear to the Israeli public, especially now when there is a lot of protest against the shortage of the housing,” Ofran says. “We wanted to show that in the territories, in the settlements, there is no such shortage.”

On the other hand, the mayor of Ma’aleh Adumim insists settlements aren’t an obstacle to peace and have actually brought Palestinians prosperity.

“I’m meeting with a lot of Palestinian people and they are very happy with this situation because they know we brought prosperity to this area,” Kashriel says, adding that some 2,000 Palestinians work in his city despite a ban declared by the Palestinian Authority.

“Everyone of us wants peace with the Palestinians. The price is the question. If the price is to evacuate our Jewish communities and cities from Judea and Samaria and to give half of Jerusalem, so this will not mean peace,” Kashriel says.


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