Israeli settlers protest construction holdup
Contend silent freeze imposed; 4,300 units await approval
JERUSALEM — Jewish settlers accused their government yesterday of holding up construction of more than 4,000 apartments in large West Bank settlements, suggesting that Israel is quietly complying with US demands to reinstate a building moratorium that expired in late September.
The settlers, releasing their first concrete figures on what projects are being blocked, say Defense Minister Ehud Barak is imposing a silent freeze by withholding his final approval of building plans.
Barak’s office responded that with the end of the slowdown, the government decides about further construction, and “every request is considered on its merits.’’
The issue of Israeli settlement construction has become a key sticking point in US-backed peace talks, just weeks after their launch at a White House ceremony.
Israel has been under heavy pressure to renew its moratorium, which limited new construction in West Bank settlements.
Some 300,000 Israelis already live in West Bank settlements, and the Palestinians say there is no point in negotiating if Israel continues to build homes on land they claim for a future state.
Netanyahu has refused to extend the slowdown, though officials say they are in talks with Washington on reaching a compromise. The Palestinians, backed by the Arab world, have given the United States until early next month to work out a deal.
Naftali Bennett, director of the Yesha Council settler umbrella group, insisted in an interview that a silent moratorium was in fact underway in large, urban settlements.
Some 4,300 apartments have all the necessary construction permits, but Barak hasn’t authorized the state to put these projects up for bid, in effect freezing them, Bennett said. He provided a list of projects he said were being held up.
Palestinian spokesman Ghassan Khatib called any drag on construction irrelevant because construction continues elsewhere at a pace that outstrips that of recent years.
“That’s why it doesn’t make any sense to consider that there is any kind of freeze or any kind of slowdown. We can say the opposite,’’ Khatib said.
As previously reported by the Associated Press, Israel has begun work on some 600 apartments across the West Bank since the 10-month moratorium expired — at least double the pace of the previous two years.
That work has begun because all necessary approvals had already been obtained before the slowdown went into effect last November. Many of those apartments are being built in outlying settlements that are expected to be evacuated under any peace deal with the Palestinians.
The overwhelming majority of the apartments that Bennett referred to lie in large settlement blocks that Israel expects to hold onto in any peace deal. These blocks are located close to Israel proper, and Israel would presumably swap an equivalent amount of territory with the Palestinians.
The biggest projects are 978 apartments in the ultra-Orthodox Betar Illit settlement and 507 in Givat Zeev, both near Jerusalem, and 800 in Alfe Menashe, a bedroom settlement outside Tel Aviv.
Roughly 80 percent of the 300,000 West Bank settlers live in the urban settlements where settlers say the silent freeze is in effect.
In violence yesterday, the Israeli military fired a tank shell at two Palestinian men who were approaching the security fence separating southern Israel from the Gaza Strip.
Also yesterday, Israel said it would begin building a barrier along its long desert border with Egypt next month. Thousands of people sneak into Israel or are smuggled across the largely unguarded border every year.
Yesterday, dozens of Jewish extremists hoisting Israeli flags marched through the Arab-Israeli town of Umm el-Fahm, chanting “death to terrorists’’ and touching off clashes between rock-hurling residents and police who quelled them with tear gas.