Israel Building in West Bank Settlements Has Dropped, New Study Finds

Stats bureau says construction in first six months of 2009 down 34 percent from same period a year ago.

New figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics show that Israel's construction of new homes in West Bank settlements fell by one-third in the first half of 2009, compared to the same period in 2008.

The numbers bolster settlers' claims that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has partially frozen settlement construction under U.S. pressure.

The Central Bureau of Statistics said Thursday that housing starts dropped 34 percent to 672 housing units compared to 1,015 for the same period in 2008.

Meanwhile, a senior Israeli official hinted twice Wednesday that construction in West Bank settlements might be retroactively legalized, in an apparent major policy turnaround.

The U.S. is pressuring Israel to halt construction entirely in the West Bank, land Palestinians claim for a future state.

Israel has refused to publicly commit to a construction freeze. But officials say the government has quietly moved to halt new housing projects while continuing construction on existing ones.