Israeli settlers have begun building new homes at a quick pace since the government lifted its moratorium on West Bank housing starts - almost 550 in three weeks, more than four times faster than the last two years.
And many homes are going up in areas that under practically any peace scenario would become part of a Palestinian state, a trend that could hamper U.S.-brokered peace talks. According to an Associated Press count, ground has been broken on 544 new West Bank homes since September 26, when Israel lifted its 10-month freeze on most new settlement building.
The survey, while not comprehensive, marks the most extensive effort yet to quantify the construction. It was based on visits to 16 of the West Bank's more than 120 settlements as well as phone calls to more than four dozen settlements and interviews with construction workers and mayors.
"This figure is alarming and is another indicator that Israel is not serious about the peace process, which is supposed to be about ending the occupation," said Ghassan Khatib, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' self-rule government in the West Bank.
The building spurt of the past three weeks compares to average annual housing starts of about 2,000 in recent years, including just under 1,900 in 2009 and just over 2,100 in 2008, according to government figures. That is a rate of about 115 in three weeks, making the current pace more than four times faster.
The actual number is likely higher. When officials provided a range, the AP used the lowest figure. And it did not include 133 apartments a contractor said he was building in three settlements, because he did not say how many were already started.
The settlement watchdog Peace Now estimates there have been more than 600 housing starts and plans to release its own detailed report next week.
Much of the building activity witnessed by the AP involved leveling ground, and some settler leaders argue it is premature to define that as housing starts.
Asked about the AP count, a spokeswoman for the settler group Yesha Council said: "I prefer not to get into the numbers game because it's misleading."
About two-thirds of post-freeze work is preliminary and could be halted if the freeze is renewed, said the spokeswoman, Aliza Herbst.