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Israel Mulls Settlement Freeze amid Building Frenzy - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Israeli soldiers stand next to a Palestinian woman protesting against Israel's controversial separation barrier in the West Bank village of Walajah near the biblical town of Bethlehem. (AFP)

Israeli soldiers stand next to a Palestinian woman protesting against Israel’s controversial separation barrier in the West Bank village of Walajah near the biblical town of Bethlehem. (AFP)

JERUSALEM (AFP) – The Israeli cabinet debated a fresh 90-day ban on West Bank settlement construction on Sunday as a Peace Now report showed the settlers have been building new homes at a furious pace.

As ministers sat down to hear details of the far-ranging proposals laid out by Washington in exchange for a one-off moratorium, the Palestinians said they had not received any official word of the US offer to Israel.

The package involves a 90-day freeze, which would not cover construction in east Jerusalem but would include all building begun since September 26 when the previous 10-month moratorium expired, a source close to the negotiations said.

It also includes a broad package of security offers, as well as a commitment to block any effort to force a political settlement on Israel.

Shortly before the cabinet sat down to discuss the offer, settlement watchdog Peace Now published a report showing that in the seven weeks since the end of the moratorium, Jewish settlers have started building 1,649 new homes — more than making up for the 10-month ban.

“It turns out that the settlement freeze was no more than a 10-month delay in the construction and the settlers managed to fill in the gap very fast,” Peace Now said.

“The government of Israel must renew the freeze in a way that will stop all settlement activity, including the projects that started in the last few weeks, until there is a final agreement between the Palestinians and Israel regarding the borders and the future of the settlements.”

The US offer is the latest in a series of steps aimed at persuading Israel to impose a new freeze in a bid to salvage moribund peace talks with the Palestinians.

The talks, which began two months ago, shuddered to a halt over renewed settlement building following the end of the ban, with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas refusing to return to the table unless Israel committed itself to a new one.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far rejected any new freeze.

US officials made no immediate comment about the latest attempt to persuade Israel to reimpose the building ban, and the Palestinians said they had “not had any official information” about the offer.

Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP the Palestinian Authority had approached US officials overnight for clarification but had not yet received an answer.

“The Palestinian Authority is waiting for an official answer from the US administration about the details and facts about what is going on with this issue,” he said.

Figures in the Peace Now report showed that over the period since the freeze expired, renewed building activity was carried out in 63 settlements and, in more than two-thirds of cases, settlers had begun laying the foundations of their new homes.

During 2009, construction work began on 1,888 new housing units, the report said, citing data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

“Had the construction continued at the same speed without the freeze, work would have begun on 1,574 units during the 10 months of the moratorium,” Peace Now said.

“In the six weeks since the end of the moratorium, the settlers have managed to start construction on a similar number of units.”

Netanyahu has spent most of the week in the United States, holding a series of meetings with senior officials, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a bid to break the deadlock.

He returned on Friday and met ministers from the Forum of Seven, his inner circle of advisers, to discuss the package.

As well as the security guarantees, Washington has also said it would veto any move in the UN Security Council or any other international body designed to pressure Israel into a political settlement, the source said.

In recent weeks, the Palestinians have repeatedly threatened to approach the Security Council for recognition of an independent state in the event that peace talks fail.

But Israel has cautioned against any unilateral moves, saying the only way to peace is through a negotiated agreement — a position backed by the United States.

The Palestinians see the settlements as a major threat to the establishment of a viable state, and they view the freezing of settlement activity as a crucial test of Israel’s intentions.

Palestinian demonstrators argue with an Israeli soldier during a protest against Israel's controversial separation barrier in the West Bank village of Walajah near the biblical town of Bethlehem. (AFP)

Palestinian demonstrators argue with an Israeli soldier during a protest against Israel’s controversial separation barrier in the West Bank village of Walajah near the biblical town of Bethlehem. (AFP)

Palestinian laborers work on a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Elazar. (R)

Palestinian laborers work on a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Elazar. (R)

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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