Figures released recently by the Central Bureau of Statistics cast doubt on government officials' claims of housing shortages for young couples living in West Bank settlements - the central argument Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends to present to U.S. President Barack Obama against freezing settlement construction.
Figures for 2006-07 reveal that the housing shortage in settlements stems largely from "migration" from Israel proper to communities beyond the Green Line, as well as the addition of new immigrants from abroad.
The data show that in 2007, natural growth accounted for 63 percent of settlement population growth, whereas internal migration accounted for 37 percent. The previous year, they show an addition of roughly 5,600 residents (which accounted for those who arrived minus those who had left) across West Bank settlements. For every 10 residents leaving settlements that year, 15 others arrived.
President Shimon Peres told Obama in their meeting earlier this month that "It is unacceptable that children born in Judea and Samaria will not have a place to live. We can't put them on the roofs." Similar remarks were made to U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell when he headed the fact-finding commission examining the causes for the outburst of the Second Intifada. In the report he submitted to then-president George W. Bush in 2001, Mitchell rejected Jerusalem's assertion that Jewish construction in the West Bank was aimed merely at housing natural population growth.
Instead, the commission largely accepted the Palestinian claim that there is no difference between the creation of new settlements and expanding existing ones, and determined that Israel should cease all building in the settlements, even that intended for what Israeli officials described as "natural growth."
That demand was contained in the Road Map, an outgrowth of the Mitchell Report, presented to Israel in 2003. A letter sent from Dov Weisglass, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon's diplomatic adviser, to Bush that same year includes an explicit commitment to freezing settlement building, particularly in those outside the "settlement blocs" or east of the separation fence.
U.S. diplomats said their government rejected the argument that Israel must allow every young couple raised in the settlements to find suitable housing in the West Bank.
The diplomats said they had obtained a copy of a classified Defense Ministry report compiled by IDF Brig. Gen. (Res.) Baruch Spiegel attesting that unauthorized building had occurred at about 75 percent of settlements, and that significant infrastructure projects had been initiated at more than 30 of them - including roads, schools, synagogues, yeshivas and even police stations - on privately-owned Palestinian land.
At a press conference last week, the chair of the Yesha council of West Bank settlements, Danny Dayan, and council secretary Pinhas Wallerstein said every year a "quiet eviction" was taking place in the West Bank of young couples raised in settlements who were unable to find housing there. They said 1,600 young couples of the 2,100 who marry annually are forced to find accommodations outside of the communities in which they grew up. Dayan and Wallerstein called on Netanyahu to change construction policy to allow such young people to erect homes in close proximity to those of their parents.
Most legal analysts around the world, including U.S. State Department jurists, view the construction of settlements in the West Bank as a violation of international law relating to war and conquered territories. The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits states from moving their own citizens into conquered land.
A response from Peace Now to the remarks made by the Yesha council officials, said the "bluff of natural growth is just one of the tricks the government is using to keep it from fulfilling its obligation to freeze settlement building. It is a shame that the president is perpetuating that lie."
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