Meir Rubinstein pulls out a directive from the Defense Ministry that brought to a halt construction of 210 apartments last year. The mayor of Beitar Illit, the most populous Jewish community in land acquired by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, Rubinstein says he needs to build at least 1,000 units a year just to keep up with demand.
“There was a freeze for the past five or six years. Twice there was an approval for 300 units so instead of 6,000 apartments – every year we need 1,000 flats – we got just 600, just 10%,” Rubinstein told The Media Line.
'Itamar massacre' killer, Hakim Awad, convicted
Second man accused in Itamar massacre on trial
Nearly a year after the Israeli government lifted a 10-month ban on housing construction in land acquired in 1967, there’s a building boom underway. It comes as peace talks remained deadlocked and the Palestinians are seeking unilateral recognition of their state by the United Nations.
Rubinstein and other mayors and community leaders say they are eager to build new houses and apartments, so eager that since the building freeze ended last October organizations like Peace Now, which monitors construction, assert they are constructing homes at twice the per capita rate of the rest of the country.
Under pressure form the US, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu
froze construction in the communities for 10 months between
January-October 2010 in a bid to bring the Palestinians back to the
negotiating table. It didn’t work and the Palestinians said building
never stopped completely. They see the settlements as an obstacle to
peace since they are on land they want for their future state.
“We cannot sit idle and watch Israel expanding every day by annexing
more Palestinian territory to theirs, buy building more settlements, by
creating more facts on the ground, by changing realities and by making
the two-state solution option an obsolete one, a non viable one,”
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Al-Maki told The Media Line.
“With their construction of settlements and changes when Israel decides
one day to sit and negotiate with the Palestinians there will be nothing
left to negotiate about,” he said.
It’s a charge dismissed by Netanyahu’s spokesman, who says the prime
minister has done more than any previous Israeli government in showing
restraint on the sensitive issues of the settlements.
“We were the first government in the history of Israel to impose a
10-month settlement freeze,” says Mark Regev, spokesman for the prime
minister. “The idea was to provide an impetus for the Palestinians to
return to negotiations. Unfortunately they refused to. Today the
government of Israel is building no new settlements and the only
construction we are allowing is inside pre-existing built up areas. We
are not taking over any disputed land. We aren’t outwardly expanding
communities. We are meeting the needs of people inside those communities
and, if you will allow me, we are doing so in a very minimalistic
manner. The mayors of those communities, the leaders of those
communities in the West Bank are extremely critical of my government.
They say we are not doing enough to allow those communities to develop.”
Asked by The Media Line why the Palestinians didn’t resume negotiations
during the 10-month freeze, Al-Malki says the deal was never made with
“We were not the only players here. Israel did not deliver the freeze to
us. They gave it to the Americans. We waited and nothing really
happened,” Al-Malki says.
Israel began building in the West Bank after it captured the territory
from Jordan in the 1967 war. Today some 321,000 Israelis live there in
160 towns, villages and cities, the bulk in four major settlement
blocs. Since the building freeze ended last October, Peace Now has
identified 2,598 building starts, one for every 123 residents compared
with one for every 235 in Israel.
In Ma’aleh Adumim, a city of some 39,000 east of Jerusalem, Palestinian
laborers are working feverishly to complete apartment buildings. A swank
city of fine trim gardens and a glitzy mall, it goes by the slogan
“Quality of life above all.” But Mayor Benny Kashriel says he’s
“Ma’aleh Adumim has not expanded. Nothing has been increased. We have
enough land to build for young couples and we are just waiting for the
government to keep their promises and to let us build for at least our
young couples who have been born here for the natural growth of our
community,” Kashriel told The Media Line. “We are very, very angry that
our government doesn’t do it. The people are very angry and our prime
minister knows it.”
In an effort to reach a compromise with the Palestinians, who want to
establish their state inside the pre-1967 line, the concept was raised
that would leave major concentrations of Jewish communities in the
territories inside Israel. In return Israel would give the future
Palestinian state an equal amount of its land.
According to Palileaks, confidential documents leaked to Al-Jazeera
television earlier this year, Palestinian leaders agreed. These blocs
included Kashriel’s Ma’aleh Adumim, Rubinstein’s Beitar Ilit and the
Gush Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem.
Beitar Ilit is a few hundred meters from the pre-967 ceasefire. Demand
outweighs supply in this community of 40,000 ultra Orthodox Israelis of
whom two thirds are under the age of 18. The cacophony of school
children at a playground echoes through the windows of the mayor’s
“We didn’t come here to clash with Arabs or with rightists or leftists.
We simply live here and want to continue living here …of course with
respect and neighborliness,” Rubinstein told The Media Line. “We have
land in the middle of the city. It belongs to the Palestinians and they
come in every day to work their land. We even built them a special
access tunnel to their land at the cost of millions. This is how we
should be living, without bothering the other.”
In Kedumim, a community of 900 families not far from Nablus, local
leaders say they have only built 50 homes since the freeze was lifted,
but they are in the midst of completing another 100.
“We have asked for hundreds more so we can continue to plan our
community but [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak has not given permission,”
town head Hananel Dorani, told The Media Line.
The Israeli government says it has shown restraint, but the Peace Now
report on the accelerated pace of settlement building came as hundreds
of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets calling for more
affordable housing and criticizing the high cost of living.
“We believe that any construction in the settlements is bad for Israel
because we will eventually have to evict the settlements and have a
two-state solution, which is good for Israel. Construction in
settlements is bad for Israel,” says Haggit Ofran, Peace Now Settlement
“We wanted to make the numbers clear to the Israeli public, especially
now when there is a lot of protest against the shortage of housing,”
Ofran says. “We wanted to show that in the territories, in the
settlements, there is no such shortage.”
On the other hand, the mayor of Ma’aleh Adumim insists settlements
aren’t an obstacle to peace and have actually brought Palestinians
“I’m meeting with a lot of Palestinian people and they are very happy
with this situation because they know we brought prosperity to this
area,” Kashriel says, adding that some 2,000 Palestinians work in his
city despite a ban declared by the Palestinian Authority.
“Everyone of us wants peace with the Palestinians. The price is the
question. If the price is to evacuate our Jewish communities and cities
from Judea and Samaria and to give half of Jerusalem, so this will not
mean peace,” Kashriel says.