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The report submitted by George Mitchell to president George W. Bush in late April 2001 stated, "On each of our two visits to the region there were Israeli announcements regarding expansion of settlements, and it was almost always the first issue raised by the Palestinians with whom we met." The document that bears the name of the former senator also noted that the government of Israel "describes its policy as prohibiting new settlements but permitting expansion of existing settlements to accommodate 'natural growth.'"

The Palestinians let Mitchell and his fellow members on the committee formed by the United States to appraise the factors that led to the outbreak of the second intifada know how they felt about natural growth. It was nothing but "kalam fadi" - empty words. They charged that there was no difference between new settlements and the expansion of existing settlements.

As for whom he believed, Mitchell left no room for doubt. The committee recommended that Israel freeze all construction in the settlements. To make it perfectly clear, the report included in this freeze the "natural growth" of existing settlements (quotation marks original). The Mitchell Committee report stressed, "The kind of security cooperation desired by the [Government of Israel] cannot for long coexist with settlement activity."

The Obama administration's new special envoy to the Middle East also signed his name to the following: "Some Israelis appear not to comprehend the humiliation and frustration that Palestinians must endure every day as a result of living with the continuing effects of occupation, sustained by the presence of Israeli military forces and settlements in their midst ..."

Subsequent to this report came the Road Map, with a special section that was based on the same Mitchell report recommendation on settlement activity. Should the new envoy rummage around his desk drawer, he would find a letter of commitment sent in 2003 to the former occupant of the White House by Dov Weisglas, the diplomatic advisor to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon. The letter contained explicit assurances to freeze the settlements, primarily those outside of the "settlement blocs," or east of the route of the security fence.

Horizontal growth

When Mitchell visits Israel this week he will see that fairly little has changed since his previous visits. He will find that Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu told another envoy, Tony Blair, that it would not be feasible to "suffocate the population" and that he would have to offer a response to the natural growth among the settler population (incidentally, one might ask why they have to always expand horizontally, and not vertically). Dror Etkes of Yesh Din: Volunteers for Human Rights (an NGO that promotes action of the legal authorities against settler violence in the West Bank) found that when the Israel Defense Forces launched the ground assault in the Gaza Strip earlier this month, the settlers also launched activity on the ground in the West Bank. This fit in with a pattern established during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. In the course of the past two weeks, Etkes documented nine new construction and road-paving projects. The Civil Administration reports that a considerable portion of this construction is unauthorized.

Be it natural growth or not, the settlements as well as the settlement outposts are growing - in a totally natural manner. Etkes would be happy to show visitors the site of the new industrial zone slated to rise next to the settlement of Karnei Shomron. There, about 16 kilometers east of Kfar Sava, far from the security fence, the visitor finds an eye-catching sign announcing the project. The name is - you guessed it - "Peace Park." A representative of the developers, A.B.H. Samaria Initiatives, Ltd., told Haaretz that the new industrial zone would measure 93.5 dunams (approximately 23 acres) and would be built in accordance with a plan approved by the authorities. The first 10 dunams are being sold at an introductory sale price of $60,000 per dunam, not including development costs. The representative of the developers stated that the remaining plots would cost $200,000 to $250,000 per dunam, about half as much as in the industrial zones of Kfar Sava. Additional details are available from attorneys of the Land Redemption Fund, a non-profit settlement association that specializes in acquisition of land in the territories.

The cornerstone-laying ceremony was held last month in the presence of Deputy Prime Minister and Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai. His office is also involved in the construction of a new pumping station on the site, in a natural manner, of course. Yishai's office offered this comment: "The minister does not see any conflict with government policy, since expansion of industry is considered a means of subsistence for residents of the area. Even the strongest opponents to expansion of construction do not feel it is proper to prevent conditions of subsistence, and an industrial zone comes under this heading."

And what does the office of Defense Minister Ehud Barak say about natural growth of industrial zones? "The case concerns an infrastructure plan on private land owned by an Israeli citizen, which came into effect in 1990. The compound would also serve as a source of employment for Palestinians."

Talya Sasson, the attorney who compiled the report on settlement outposts for the Sharon government, and who is number seven on the Meretz list for the Knesset, mentions a decision adopted in 1992 by the Rabin government, according to which each and every plan for the establishment of a new settlement - including those previously authorized by Likud governments - would require the reapproval of the current government. She notes that every construction project in the territories also requires the authorization of the defense minister, due to the need to allocate forces to secure the area.

"Furthermore," says Sasson, "the construction of this industrial zone was authorized under completely different circumstances than those that apply now, nearly 20 years later." In terms of the international arena, she adds, there is no difference between a new settlement and an industrial park. In both instances, construction is most certainly at odds with Israeli assurances not to build beyond the "construction line" of existing settlements. So as to remove any doubt, Sasson emphasizes that legally speaking, assurances given to the Bush administration are absolutely binding vis-a-vis the Obama administration.