Despite controversy, Israel’s settlement freeze has barely slowed construction

By Matti Friedman, AP
Thursday, September 23, 2010

Settlement freeze has barely slowed construction

ARIEL, West Bank — How much of a freeze has there actually been on West Bank Jewish settlement building by Israel?

Very little, an Associated Press analysis of the numbers suggests.

To settlers like Ron Nachman, the mayor of this West Bank community, the halt has been brutal. He fumes at the government and points angrily at a low hill covered with shrubs, where 100 homes for settlers were planned — then suspended.

And the nearly 10-month-old freeze is important enough to the Palestinians that they have threatened to walk away from peace talks, just restarted amid much fanfare, if it ends as planned on Sunday.

But the government’s own figures — and the assessments of Israeli peace activists monitoring construction — show building has barely slowed down.

In the third quarter of 2009, before the restrictions were imposed last November, there were 2,790 settlement homes in various stages of construction, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. The number rose to 2,955 in the last quarter of 2009, reflecting a last-minute surge of housing starts in the days leading up to the freeze.

In the first quarter of 2010, with the freeze in full effect, the number stood at 2,517.

That means that even months into the halt, the number of homes under construction had declined by only about 10 percent.

There are no official figures for the months since. But Israeli peace activists, who use aerial photography and ground inspections to track settlement building, say there has been no appreciable decline, since most of the projects take longer than 10 months to complete.

The situation is largely the same, they say, in non-residential construction such as commercial buildings, small factories and schools.

The numbers have hardly been dented because the halt ordered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu covered only new projects. Anything already under way when the measures went into effect could be completed.

That is why the Palestinians — backed by the United States — want the freeze to continue. If it does, the logic goes, those ongoing projects would eventually be completed and the number of homes under construction would then begin to drop steeply.

If the measures are lifted Sunday and new projects are launched, the four-decade-old march of settlement-building in the West Bank — which Israel occupied along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war — will hardly have registered a blip.

“The freeze is meaningful only if it is extended,” said Hagit Ofran, who tracks settlements for Peace Now. “If they are going to approve new buildings, all this will have meant is that a few projects were delayed.”

“If the freeze continues, and if there is enforcement, then certainly we will see a change in the existing numbers,” agreed Israeli peace activist Dror Etkes.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said the terms of the halt were clear from the start. “We were very up front,” he said. “We always said the freeze was about new construction, and in that case it has been full.”

Government statistics show a dramatic drop in new construction since the freeze began: There were zero housing starts in the first quarter of this year, compared to 342 in the same quarter last year. But those figures do not include illegal construction or mobile homes, both of which are common.

In reality, around 450 new housing units have begun construction since the slowdown went into effect, according to Peace Now. Still, those numbers reflect a drop of about 50 percent in the pace of new home construction.

Any discussion of the issue quickly inflames passions and reveals the divergent narratives of the sides.

To Palestinians, each instance of building is another provocation. The settlements eat up the territory of a future Palestinian state and make virtually impossible the two-state partition Israel’s government says it wants.

“If Palestinians and the international community are not able to convince the Israelis to … stop illegal settlement expansion, how do we expect to reach an agreement that would dismantle all illegal settlements and end occupation?” said Husam Zomlot, a spokesman for the Palestinian negotiation team.

Already, some 300,000 Israelis — out of a population approaching 8 million — live in the West Bank, among 2.5 million Palestinians. Another 200,000 Israelis live in east Jerusalem, where the Palestinians want to locate the capital of a future independent state. The building freeze does not apply in east Jerusalem, despite earlier Palestinian demands that it be extended there.

Despite the freeze, Nachman had to shout to be heard Tuesday over the sound of Palestinian workers drilling foundations for a new factory in Ariel that will produce iron bars — a project that was already under way when the restrictions went into effect.

He said the freeze is demoralizing to the settlement’s 20,000 residents, because beyond the practical inconvenience lies a deeper message: There is a question mark looming over the very future of this place.

“Every industrialist, every person who wants to invest money for a home or industry or anything, wants to know that it’s OK — that it’s certain,” he said.

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