News / Middle East

Israeli Settlement Expansion Raises West Bank Tensions

After the United Nations' cultural organization UNESCO voted to grant membership to the Palestinians, Israel announced it would accelerate construction of Jewish settlements on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  The move drew international outrage. One of them is Givat Hamatos, a settlement that was already in the scheduling phase.

It lies on a hill between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Twenty years ago, there was temporary housing here, for newly-arrived Ethiopian and Russian immigrants.

Only 40 families live here now. But Israel plans to change that.

Galia Cohen is a retired city worker. She has rented this house for 20 years. She would like to have a nicer home. "I heard about it many times. But nothing has happened here," Cohen said.

Yaakov Baruchi moved to Givat Hamatos 20 years ago with his wife and two children.  Now he has nine kids and wants to expand.

"This housing is not appropriate for the 21st century.  Although it's nice here, this is not a house.  This is what one calls a tin neighborhood," Baruchi said.

Givat Hamatos lies between two districts that Israel built on West Bank land it captured in 1967 and later annexed to Jerusalem.

Palestinians say Israel wants to consolidate control over traditionally Arab East Jerusalem and undermine the demand that it be the Palestinian capital as part of any peace agreement.

Khalil Tufakji is a map specialist and member of the Palestinian delegation to peace talks.

"They want to reduce the Palestinians in this area. And at the same time they want to double the [number of Jewis] settlers in this area, [build] 2,610 housing units in this area -- this is the first stage -- and the final stage will be 4,000 [housing units]," Tufakji said.

Israel says these areas are integral parts of Jerusalem and will remain part of Israel under any peace agreement.  The Palestinians reject this.

The international community considers all settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem illegal.

Shaul Arieli, a map specialist for Israel's negotiating team, says the Israeli government also wants to isolate East Jerusalem from Palestinian cities such as Ramallah to the north and Bethlehem to the south.

"Givat Hamatos is part of the plan to build a Jewish urban buffer between Bethlehem and East Jerusalem. It will be much harder to achieve peace or a final status agreement for Jerusalem with these neighborhoods," Arieli said.

The Palestinians say Israeli settlement building in places like Givat Hamatos is keeping them from returning to the negotiating table.  The Israeli government cites the Palestinians' refusal to negotiate and their bid for U.N. membership as a reason to continue and even accelerate settlement construction. The deadlock has diminished hopes for a resumption of the peace talks any time soon.

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