|Construction has continued during the 10-month partial ban on Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. [Reuters]|
Like much of the international community, the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has called on Israel to extend its freeze on illegal settlements, hours before the 10-month moratorium expires.
Abbas, who has repeatedly vowed to abandon the US-sponsored peace talks if Israel resumes settlement construction, has now told AFP news agency in Paris that he would meet top Arab diplomats on October 4 before deciding his next move.
Abba’s non-committal position was also echoed by his chief negotiator. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Saeb Erakat said that he ” cannot confirm if President Abbas will abandon the peace talks or not.”
Illegal construction on Palestinian land has become one of the most contentious issues in the newly revived peace talks. But, before the 10-month moratorium has even been lifted, residents in some Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank have been celebrating the breaking of new ground as part of a symbolic restart of construction.
The construction of settlements has been frozen since November 2009. However, there was continued construction of settlements that begun before the freeze was implemented.
For the Palestinians, it is critical that the moratorium is extended as only then will they see a drop in settlement activity over time. Analysts believe that as many foundations were laid in the weeks before the moratorium in November 2009, no significant decrease in settlement construction has been recorded. As such, if the freeze is not extended, then the last 10 months will not mean anything to the Palestinians.
Despite prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s call for “settler restraint” as the partial moratorium on Israeli settlements is about to expire, dozens of Jewish settlers have started digging a new daycare centre deep inside the West Bank.
Another 2,000 people also headed to a nearby settlement for a larger rally. Activists released 2,000 blue and white balloons at the rally, the colours of the Israeli flag into the air at sundown. The balloons were meant to symbolise the 2,000 apartments that settlers say are ready to be built immediately.
David Axelrod, a top aide to US president Barack Obama said that Washington is “hopeful” that the Israelis and Palestinians will compromise on the West Bank settlements issue and avert a collapse of the peace talks. US Administration is very keen on the success of the peace process that it started earlier this month.
Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna has been in Modi’In Illit, the largest Israeli settlement in the West Bank and he reported that just this one settlement has grown by 78% in the last eight years–a figure that has been repeated in other settlements throughout the West Bank.
He said: “Israelis have argued very strongly that the reason for settlement expansion and the need for ongoing construction is natural growth within the settlements. However according to a report just released by the Human Rights commission, population growth in Israel was recorded at 1.8% in 2008 whereas the settlement numbers have increased by 5% hence natural growth in population is not the only reason for settlement expansion.”
Since 1967, the number of settlements built inside the West Bank has increased rapidly despite being illegal under international law. Within 22 years, the settler communities and smaller outposts grew in number with 72,000 Israelis moving in.
A decade later, that number rose to 205,000 settlers.
Now it’s estimated that half a million Israelis are living in more than 200 different settlements and outposts in the Occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Al Jazeera’s Nour Odeh has been monitoring the developments in the West Bank village of Bil’in and she reports that “Palestinians of all political persuasions have been very clear and quite united in saying that no negotiations can happen while settlement construction is eating up Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem.”
“Settlements are built mostly on privately owned Palestinian land. So this is not just a political issue but a very personal issue for thousands of Palestinians across the divide.”
What is next?
Ron Pundak of the Peres Centre for Peace told Al Jazeera that “Palestinians are demanding extension of freeze until the end of the year, three months until the end of the year is not difficult to cope with. And it is easier to continue with the freeze then to stop and start again.”
According to Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna, “Everybody is waiting for some kind of formal announcement by the Israeli government, either to extend the moratorium or to end it, or to find some type of concession in between that will satisfy all parties.”