A July 23 article misstated the amount of land in the Gaza Strip occupied by Jewish settlers. Although there is disagreement on the exact amount, estimates range from about 12 percent to about 15 percent. When Israeli military installations, roads and security zones are included, estimates range from about 15 percent to about 38 percent. (Published 7/28/04)
Jewish settlements and outposts are growing rapidly in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, despite Israeli pledges to the United States to stop the expansion of such communities and dismantle some of them, according to Israeli government statistics and a report released Thursday by settlement opponents.
The growth is particularly pronounced in the Gaza Strip, where Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has proposed removing all Jewish settlers and the Israeli soldiers protecting them by the end of 2005. A little more than 8,000 settlers occupy approximately 40 percent of the land in the Gaza Strip; about 1.3 million Palestinians live on the remaining 60 percent.
According to a new report by the anti-settlement group Peace Now, Israeli settlements and outposts grew by more than 100 acres -- with at least 65 acres added in the West Bank and about 47 in the much smaller Gaza Strip -- in March, April and May this year. At least 3,100 apartments are being built in the settlements, "in addition to the preparation of areas for construction of thousands of further housing" units, the report says.
The study included more than 50 satellite photographs and other pictures showing construction work and expansion between February and July at settlements and at outposts, which are generally smaller than settlements and do not have the same government approval. Before-and-after satellite images show the clearing of land, the construction of roads and the addition of greenhouses, trailers and homes.
The pictures "show without a shadow of doubt how these illegal outposts were expanded and asphalt roads paved and new prefab houses brought in, and in some places real brick houses have started to be built," Ephraim Sneh, a member of parliament from the main opposition Labor Party, said in a recent interview. "It shows that the government not only isn't dismantling settlements, it's expanding them with government funds."
"There is no expansion of existing settlements," said Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin, who added that Israel believed it was permitted to build within existing settlement boundaries. As for outposts, Gissin said: "Everything that is unauthorized and illegal will be removed once the legal proceedings are over. . . . We are going to continue with our relentless effort to take them down, but in a way that's without causing bloodshed."
The Peace Now report was meant to counter the "disinformation, half-truths and lies" being spread by the Israeli government about its efforts to dismantle outposts and contain settlements, according to Dror Etkes, the head of Peace Now's Settlement Watch Team. "People are building up settlements and outposts every day in broad daylight," he said. "There's no way the government doesn't know about it."
In adopting a U.S.-backed peace plan, known as the "road map," 14 months ago, Israel agreed to freeze "all settlement activity" and "immediately" dismantle settlement outposts that had been erected after March 2001. The Israeli government says 28 outposts fall into that category; Peace Now says the number is 51. An additional 45 outposts were built before March 2001, the organization claims.
Settlement growth has continued unchecked, and few outposts have been removed, Peace Now says. In the few instances in which an outpost was removed, a new one went up almost immediately somewhere else, according to Etkes, who said this was evidence of "a well-planned deal between the settlers and the Ministry of Defense."
While Israeli officials assert that numerous outposts have been dismantled, the government has not released a comprehensive list of their names and the dates they came down. At the same time, other outposts have grown so much that they are in the legal process of being converted to legitimate settlements.
Many religious Jews cite the Bible for their belief that the West Bank, which they call Judea and Samaria, was given to them by God and that they have a right -- some say an obligation -- to settle there and reclaim it. Some analysts say Jews are moving to Gaza to try to complicate Sharon's withdrawal plan.
New statistics from Israel's Interior Ministry show that the population has spiked in Gaza settlements slated for evacuation under Sharon's disengagement plan, which is on hold as he tries to build support in his cabinet and parliament.
The population of Netzarim -- a settlement just south of Gaza City that recently added seven mobile homes, according to the Peace Now satellite pictures -- grew by 43 (10.8 percent), to 442, during the past six months. The population of Kfar Darom, in central Gaza, rose 15.7 percent, government statistics show.
In all, the settler population in the Gaza Strip rose about 4.3 percent during the past six months, from 7,820 in December to 8,153 in June. In Sa-Nur, one of the four isolated West Bank settlements that Sharon has targeted for evacuation, the population almost doubled in that period, climbing from 38 residents to 69, according to Israel's Interior Ministry. Peace Now aerial photographs show that the settlement recently added four new trailers.
Researchers Ian Deitch and Hillary Claussen contributed to this report.