As Gaza exit looms, a settlement surges

Building boom: Palestinians fear isolation as an affluent Jewish community keeps growing.

In The West Bank

April 12, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MAALE ADUMIM, West Bank - The view from Mayor Benni Kashriel's fourth-floor office window leaves no doubt why the community he leads has become the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

Sprawled across the desert hilltops about four miles east of Jerusalem, Maale Adumim is a community of red-tile-roofed homes, curved streets bordered by blooming flower beds, cascading fountains, a shopping mall, playgrounds, 140 factories producing furniture, wine and computer software, all surrounded by picturesque red-hued hills sloping down to the Jordan Valley.

And Kashriel wants it to keep growing, despite the wishes of President Bush.

Backed by the Israeli government, Kashriel is preparing to realize his dream of constructing a 3,500-home neighborhood west of the settlement, providing a link between Maale Adumim and the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem. Kashriel insists the proposed construction is part of a long-standing plan to accommodate the natural growth of the community.

"About 80 percent of our children are buying their homes here and establishing their families here," he said.

But the Palestinians see it as a reckless attempt by Israel to increase the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians would like to have as their capital. Hemmed in by a security barrier erected by Israel, the Palestinians say if the development goes ahead it will further isolate their villages and disrupt efforts to restart substantive peace negotiations.

Yesterday, President Bush formally weighed in on the matter. Speaking after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Bush reiterated the United States' stance that the expansion would violate the "road map" plan for peace.

"I told the prime minister not to undertake any activity that contravenes the road map or prejudices final-status obligations," Bush said.

Whether Bush's challenge will make a difference is not clear.

Although the road map calls for a freeze on all settlement activity, there was plenty of construction under way this week in Maale Adumim. Hundreds of construction workers operating building cranes and cement mixers were busy erecting a new section of 500 apartment complexes. Real estate offices meanwhile offered glossy floor plans of the new apartments, which start at about $100,000, a bargain compared with real estate prices in Jerusalem.

In an interview before yesterday's Sharon-Bush meeting, Kashriel did not appear to be worried about whether Bush would condemn the construction plans.

"I know the Americans are not satisfied with building. But we are building in the daylight. We are not hiding anything," Kashriel said.

"I don't think we have to give up anything. What for? Because the Palestinians are screaming? Because President Bush is complaining? This land will stay forever. Presidents may come and go, but this land will stay."

Using a laser pointer, Kashriel directed a visitor's attention to a giant aerial photograph of the settlement hanging on his office wall. He outlined the areas where construction is under way or is planned to begin in the next two years. Each year, the settlement needs an additional 500 to 700 apartment units to keep pace with growth, he said.

"We are not building out of Maale Adumim territory. We are building in Maale Adumim territory. We are not expanding at all," he said.

Kashriel dismissed Palestinian complaints that the development would isolate them as unfounded. What's more, he said, the development would create more jobs for Palestinians, who fill about 2,000 jobs in the settlement's industrial zone.

Although the popular image of Jewish settlements may be that of a cluster of religious Jews living in trailers in remote outposts, there is nothing temporary or remote about Maale Adumim.

The settlement has all the comforts and conveniences of suburbia, including a shopping mall that boasts an Ace Hardware store, a movie theater, pizzerias, banks and bakeries.

The majority of residents were drawn here by the financial incentives, not spiritual reasons. Taking advantage of government tax breaks, the settlers can buy larger homes and enjoy a higher quality of life than they would in Jerusalem.

Kashriel's confidence in Maale Adumim's future is perhaps not surprising. Israeli leaders through the years have supported development in Maale Adumim, promising that in any final peace pact it would be included within Israel's border, as Sharon did yesterday.

"The settlement blocs will remain in Israel's hands in any final-status agreement no matter the repercussions entailed," Sharon told reporters.

Unlike the 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip, which Sharon's governments plans to dismantle starting in July, such a pullout from this settlement is unlikely.

"Everyone knows that Maale Adumim will be part of Israel," Kashriel said. "No one hesitated to build here or develop. From the left wing, from the right, all of them built here.

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