A new report by the Israeli group Peace Now said Israel has nearly doubled construction in its West Bank settlements this year—violating commitments under the US-backed “road map” peace plan even as it pursued revived talks with the Palestinians. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who met with Israeli and Palestinian officials for a second day in a bid to move negotiations forward, said she had told the Israelis that settlement activity is “not helpful.”
“What we need now are steps that enhance confidence between the parties, and anything that undermines confidence between the parties ought to be avoided,” Rice said when asked about the report at a news conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. “The United States believes that the [settlement] actions and the announcements that are taking place are indeed having a negative effect on the atmosphere for negotiation.”
On Aug. 25, Israel released 198 Palestinian prisoners, calling it a confidence-building measure to support peace talks. But ongoing Israeli settlement construction on land captured in 1967 continues to shadow the negotiations, drawing protests from Palestinian officials who say it prejudices the outcome of the talks and undermines prospects for a territorially viable Palestinian state.
The “road map” peace plan, affirmed at a conference that relaunched talks in November, requires Israel to freeze all settlement activity and the Palestinians to break up and disarm militant groups. Rice has said during her trip that neither side had fully met its commitments under the plan.
The Peace Now report finds that there are more than 1,000 new buildings going up in West Bank settlements, including 2,600 housing units. The findings are based on aerial photographs and on-site visits. The report indicates a sharp increase in new Israeli building in East Jerusalem. This year the government invited bids for construction of 1,761 homes there, compared with 46 in 2007.
Citing data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the report said government-backed construction in West Bank settlements in the first five months of 2008 was 1.8 times greater than it was last year. From January to May of this year, the Housing Ministry initiated construction of 433 new homes, compared with 240 in the same period in 2007, the report said.
The report accuses: “In recent years the trend has accelerated to eliminate the Green Line through intensive construction intended to create a territorial connection between the blocks of settlements and isolated settlements in the heart of the West Bank.”
Livni urged the Palestinians not to use the settlement issue as an “excuse” to hold up the negotiations, saying she had not done so after Palestinian attacks in Israel. “The peace process is not and should not be affected by any kind of settlement activities,” Livni said. “The role of leaders is to try and find a way to live in peace in the future, and not to let any kind of noises that relate to the situation on the ground these days to enter the negotiation room.”
The Geneva Conventions specifically forbid the transfer of a civilian population into occupied territory. But even as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem last week, plans for further settlement construction were underway. At the beginning of the month, the Israel Lands Authority published tenders for the construction of 130 new housing units in Har Homa, East Jerusalem. In addition, there are currently 500 houses already under construction in Har Homa, and 240 in the East Jerusalem settlement of Maaleh Adumim.
At the same time as the Har Homa tenders were being published, Israeli officials also called for bids from construction companies to build more than 300 apartments in the West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit near Bethlehem, and about 20 minutes drive from Jerusalem. (Chicago Tribune, IPS, Aug. 27; Peace Now, Aug. 25)