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Mutual Dismay Over Jewish Settlements

Palestinian workers are building new housing for Jewish settlers in Givat Zeev in the West Bank, where 750 apartments are rising on a hillside enclave a mile from the existing settlement.
Palestinian workers are building new housing for Jewish settlers in Givat Zeev in the West Bank, where 750 apartments are rising on a hillside enclave a mile from the existing settlement. (By Peter Dejong -- Associated Press)

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By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

GIVAT ZEEV, West Bank -- Under a scorching May sun, workers chip away at a cliff that will soon yield to a settlement for ultra-Orthodox Jews.

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A few miles away, Jewish families prepare to move into new homes with sweeping views of a verdant West Bank valley. And in an East Jerusalem neighborhood that has long been a heart of Palestinian life, settlers are figuring out how to transform a former police station into a new community.

Despite Israeli commitments to end settlement expansion, both planning and construction are moving forward every day across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In the six months since negotiations resumed between Israel and the Palestinians, settlements have remained a sore point.

To Palestinians, the expansion of settlements represents proof that Israel is not serious about wanting a deal. Palestinian Authority leaders say settlement construction undermines their position of talking with Israel, rather than fighting it, and gives ammunition to extremists.

"We're becoming the joke of the town because of these settlement activities," said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator.

But to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his allies, the construction is simply a matter of the Jewish state putting to good use land it will inevitably control under a future agreement.

Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, said that since the Annapolis conference in November that relaunched the peace talks, Olmert has not allowed any new construction in the West Bank without his personal authorization, and he has been judicious in what he has approved.

"This government has done more than any previous Israeli government to bring under control unchecked growth in the settlements," Regev said.

In trying to strike a balance, however, Olmert has won few friends. Palestinian leaders and international observers criticize Israel for allowing the construction to continue, despite an Israeli pledge in the 2003 "road map" to peace to halt all settlement activity.

The settlers themselves, meanwhile, have cursed the prime minister for making it harder for them to build.

At stake is the future of land that has been in dispute since 1967, when Israeli forces conquered Arab territory -- and soon thereafter began to settle it. East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel, although that decision has not been recognized internationally. The West Bank, meanwhile, remains under military occupation. Israel withdrew from its Gaza Strip settlements in 2005.

The Palestinian nation, when and if it is created, will include the West Bank and Gaza, with Palestinians hoping to secure East Jerusalem as their capital. But they say the constant settlement construction is eating away at their hopes of creating a viable state, leaving them with, as Bir Zeit University professor Ali Jarbawi describes it, "a state of leftovers."

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