JERUSALEM, (AFP) — Israeli settlers have illegally begun work on at least 100 homes in the occupied West Bank since the end of a freeze on settlement construction, Israel’s Peace Now movement said on Thursday.
“Since the end of the settlement freeze at the end of September, at least 100 buildings are now under construction in the West Bank,” Peace Now’s secretary general Yariv Oppenheimer told AFP.
In November 2009, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu implemented a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank, but he refused to renew the ban after it expired on September 26, despite intense international pressure.
“The illegal building being carried out without the necessary permits from the authorities is taking place both in existing settlements and outposts,” Oppenheimer said.
“If an Israeli built under the same circumstances in Tel Aviv for example, it would all be destroyed on the spot and he would brought to justice.”
A military spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, refused to comment on Peace’s Now’s figures.
“We have applied the law against illegal building in Judea and Samaria all year, and we will continue to do so,” he told AFP, using the biblical name for the West Bank.
Danny Dayan, head of the Yesha Council, a leading settler organisation, told military radio he could neither confirm nor deny Peace Now’s figures.
“But we have to keep the big picture in mind, because the real scandal is the failure of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, since he took office in March 2009, to issue a single call for tenders for legal construction of houses in Judea and Samaria,” he said.
“The government is strangling the settlements,” he added, pointing out that Netanyahu approved at least 4,600 tenders for West Bank settlements during his last term between 1996 and 1999.
And in the two-year government headed by Labour politician Ehud Barak, from 1999 to 2001, some 4,900 homes were approved for construction in West Bank settlements, Dayan said.
But Oppenheimer said the lack of new tender offers was not holding back the expansion of settlements because there were at least 1,700 outstanding building permits for areas where construction has not yet started.
“The settlers who are boosting outpost construction want to benefit from the end of the settlement freeze to expand the facts on the ground,” said Hagit Ofran, the director of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch project.
“They think that the government won’t actually do anything to stop them,” she told AFP, adding Peace Now had submitted documents on the illegal building to the attorney general’s office, seeking a legal investigation.
Settlement construction on occupied land in the West Bank and Jerusalem remains one of the thorniest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and sunk the last round of direct talks between the two sides.
The negotiations, the first direct talks in nearly two years, began September 2 in Washington but ground to a halt after Netanyahu’s partial settlement freeze expired on September 26.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has said he will not return to talks unless Israel reimposes a building ban, and extends it to east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want for the capital of their future state.
Netanyahu resisted strong international pressure to renew the freeze, including a generous US package of incentives, forcing the United States to admit it had failed to secure a new ban.
More than 300,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank, and another 200,000 live across east Jerusalem along with some 270,000 Palestinians