January 20, 2012
A 20 per cent rise in settlement construction across the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the past year has taken land critical to the creation of a Palestinian state and placed a two-state solution further away than ever, a report has found.
Building has started on at least 1850 housing units, while there were 3500 units already under construction, the Israeli settlement watch group Peace Now said.
Eleven new settlements - home to 2300 settlers and 680 structures - were recognised by Israel last year when it legalised those outposts (outposts are created when a settlement expands to a new area of land).
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A further 1577 units were flagged as part of the Ministry of Housing's official list of pending tenders, the report found.
''The Netanyahu government is promoting several plans precisely in disputed areas which could prevent the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel,'' Peace Now found. The Israeli government said it had exercised ''great restraint'' regarding the settlements and described Peace Now's figures as exaggerated.
Meanwhile, a leaked report from the European Union on Area C in the West Bank, where 62 per cent of the territory is under Israeli security and civil control, found ''the window for a two-state solution is rapidly closing''.
''The Palestinian presence in Area C has been continuously undermined through different administrative measures, planning regulations and other means adopted by Israel as occupying power.
''If the current trends are not stopped or reversed, the establishment of a viable Palestinian state within the pre-1967 boundaries seems more remote than ever,'' the yet-to-be-released report says.
The rapid growth in settlements - considered illegal under international law - means settlers (310,000) now significantly outnumber Palestinian residents (150,000) in Area C.
Along with the settlement expansion, the EU report found, Israel's prohibitive planning regime - which prevents Palestinians building new houses or expanding their present ones, restricts access to water, electricity, sewage and agricultural land as well as the prevention of free movement throughout the territory via checkpoints and the military's separation wall - was eroding the Palestinians' ability to continue living in those areas.
Israel would not comment on the EU report. A spokesman from the foreign ministry said ''the report has not been presented to us … we didn't know it was being written and to my understanding we were never consulted in its preparation''.
A third round of ''exploratory'' talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials began in Jordan late on Saturday, although a Palestinian spokeswoman, Hanan Ashrawi, said she was not expecting any breakthrough before the January 26 deadline set by the Middle East Quartet in October.
Israel's refusal to halt settlement construction was a serious barrier to progress, she said.
The West Bank village of Asira, just south of Nablus, knows too well the challenges of living under Israel's military occupation in the shadow of a settlement. Villagers said they were consistently attacked by residents of the neighbouring settlement of Yizhar, as often as once a week. But the house that bears the brunt of those attacks is the Maklouf residence. It is the last home in the village and closest to the settlement.
The family has an extraordinary collection of home movies, shot by their mother on a hand-held video recorder, that depict life on the front line of settler violence.
In video after video, seen by the Herald, armed settlers, their faces covered by scarves, charge down the hill towards the Maklouf home, firing guns, throwing stones and wielding iron bars, and screaming obscenities against the prophet Muhammad, the family and the village. One settler rampage that began at 12.15am on December 12 lasted at least half an hour, the family said.
The family - mother Khadra, father Ibrahim and their six children - said they thought they would die. Desperate calls to the Israeli Defence Forces, stationed just kilometres away, went unanswered as the group of at least 100 settlers surrounded them, throwing rocks and bricks at their house and banged on their walls with iron bars.
''You cannot imagine the fear,'' Khadra Maklouf said. ''The girls were screaming… I was terrified somebody would get shot and killed.''
Ibrahim, her husband, said: ''Now the younger boys are too frightened to use the toilet, and the girls will not even go to the kitchen to get a glass of water. We are worried whenever they are playing outside that the settlers might harm them.''
Gerard Horton, from Defence for Children International, said: ''This is the human cost of the settlements. These are the friction points, where children get arrested, land is lost, water is restricted and every aspect of life is affected.''
Sydney Morning Herald