Gravel-laden trucks rumbled up dirt roads, and labourers plastered walls of high-rise apartments in a fast-growing Jewish settlement, one of several across the West Bank.

Since the plan's launch two years ago, some 4200 houses have gone up in settlements - enough to increase the settler population, now 240,000, by 10%.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will be asked about his vision for the West Bank - including Palestinian fears that he is unilaterally drawing a border there while blocking attempts to renew talks - when he meets next week with world leaders in New York during the United Nation's 60th anniversary celebrations.

Israel's message

Israel
's message is that it has paid a high price by withdrawing from Gaza, and that peace talks cannot resume so long as fighters remain armed, Sharon's aides say.

Until then, Israel doesn't consider itself bound by the plan.

"We need to make sure the Palestinians stick to their commitments," said Israeli Foreign Ministry official Gideon Meir.
The Palestinians fear the Gaza pullout is the first stage of a plan by Sharon to tighten Israel's hold over the eastern sector of Jerusalem - which they want for a capital - and large tracts of the West Bank. "What Sharon is doing is negotiating with himself," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

"What Sharon is doing is negotiating with himself"

Saeb Erekat,
Palestinian negotiator

The Palestinians point to the barrier Israel is building to separate it from the West Bank, saying its route is dictated by politics, not security, as Israel claims. The barrier is to encircle Jerusalem and meanders into the West Bank to enclose major settlement blocs.

Sharon holding on

Sharon says he wants to hold on to large blocs in any peace deal, but is not specific. Nor does he explain what would happen to the dozens of smaller Jewish communities on the "Palestinian" side of the controversial barrier, where about one-fourth of the settlers live.

A recent tour of five of the fastest-growing Jewish settlements helped to fill in the picture. Four of the five - Betar Illit, Maaleh Adumim, Alfei Menashe and Kiryat Sefer - fall on the Israeli side of its illegal barrier.

They are relatively close to Israel and already so large that they would stay under Israeli rule even under the so-called "Geneva Initiative," a peace deal proposal formulated by former Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

In Betar Illit, a sprawling ultra-orthodox Jewish extremist settlement of 26,000 southwest of Jerusalem, hundreds of apartments are being built. One sign advertised 175 apartments under construction; another advertised 136.

Pounding jackhammers

Israel has continued its
expansion of Jewish settlements

The pounding of jackhammers broke the stillness of the West Bank. Palestinian labourers climbed up scaffolding and plastered facades, and trucks kicked up dust. Israel insists settlements are not growing territorially, and that construction is restricted to built-up areas.

However, in Alfei Menashe, a settlement of 5500 northeast of Tel Aviv, a new neighbourhood is being built on a hill separated from the "mother settlement" by a dry riverbed.

In Maaleh Adumim, the largest Jewish settlement with 29,500 residents east of Jerusalem, new construction is spreading deeper into the West Bank.

The US acknowledged Israel may retain control over large West Bank settlements under a final Mideast peace deal.

Killing Palestinian hopes

But there has been friction with Washington over expanding the communities, particularly a plan to build a Maaleh Adumim satellite settlement with 3650 homes that would cut off east Jerusalem from the West Bank and kill Palestinian hopes to set up a capital there.

The US has also vetoed plans to swing the barrier around Ariel, the third-largest settlement, which unlike the other major settlement blocs, is located deep in the West Bank.

Plans to take the barrier in an extra-wide loop around Maaleh Adumim - almost halfway through the West Bank in an east-west direction - are also on hold.

Israeli officials are reluctant to discuss the fate of dozens of settlements on the "Palestinian" side of the barrier. Sharon's formal position is there won't be further unilateral withdrawals.

 

New constructions are going
deeper into the West Bank

However, some officials acknowledge that some of the enclaves might eventually whither away.

Residents of some communities have already urged the government to move them back to Israel, in exchange for compensation.

Even Ariel, which has around 17,000 residents, might not survive because it's 17km from Israel, a senior Housing Ministry official suggested.

Free ride in America

This week, "For sale" signs hung from a number of balconies in Ariel. Yet, the government also approved construction of 117 new homes, and a sports centre is to be built by April.

In Israel, once bitterly divided over the fate of settlements, there is a growing consensus to keep just some of the blocs.

The left-right debate is now being waged over Jerusalem - Sharon says the city is non-negotiable - and over how much of the West Bank to annex.

The Palestinians accuse Sharon of re-drawing the line that would deny them a viable state.

But the Israeli leader, fighting off a challenge from rebels in his Likud Party who want to depose him because of the Gaza pullout, is not likely to be pressured by the international community in coming months, Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher said.

"As long as Sharon delivers something successful, like disengagement (from Gaza), and as long as no strong, stable Palestinian leadership emerges, he could have something of a free ride, at least in America," Alpher said.