Israeli settlements grow

Peace group's report heats debate on talks

November 08, 2007|By Richard Boudreaux | Richard Boudreaux,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- Israel is enlarging 88 of its 122 West Bank settlements despite an agreement to halt the spread of Jewish communities in Palestinian territory, the watchdog group Peace Now said yesterday.

A report by the group, which documented the construction of new homes with aerial photography and on-site visits, heated up the debate here over a key issue for the U.S.-sponsored peace summit expected to take place this year in Annapolis.

Israel wants to keep large parts of settlements in a final peace accord, while the Palestinians demand the entire West Bank for a future state. Under a 2003 U.S.-backed plan known as the road map, Israel agreed to stop the growth of settlements as a first step toward negotiations on final borders.

During a visit this week to prepare for the summit, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice won renewed pledges from Israel and the Palestinians to abide by the long-ignored road map. But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, while acknowledging that both sides had failed to live up to the plan, did not say when Israel would move to stop settlement expansion.

Rafiq Husseini, an aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said the evidence of new construction reported by Peace Now was troubling.

"What Israel is doing on the ground is of course an obstacle to all that we are trying to achieve," Husseini said.

The road map requires the Palestinian Authority, as a first step, to start a process of clamping down on armed militant groups that attack Israel.

In recent months, Abbas has reorganized his security forces in the West Bank, collected weapons from scores of militants who agreed to a truce, and begun sharing intelligence on security matters with Israel. However, his forces control only the West Bank; the Hamas movement, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist, dominates in the Gaza Strip.

"Arguably the Palestinians have begun the process," said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. "It's not a great development yet, but they are starting to do things in that realm and beginning to feel that it's time to say to the Israelis, `Hey, what about your obligations ... to freeze settlement expansion?'"

Peace Now, an Israeli organization, calls for abolishing the settlements and monitors their activity.

Neither the Israeli government nor Yesha, the settler movement, disputed the report's findings. Yesha confirmed that new Jewish homes are being built on West Bank land, which it refers to as Judea and Samaria and believes was given to Jews by God.

According to government data cited in the report, the number of West Bank settlers increased by 5.8 percent to 267,500 in the first half of this year.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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