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  Middle East & Africa
Is Netanyahu's Building Freeze A Facade?
By Juliet Shardlow
Staff Writer
Benjamin Netanyahu

On the pavement outside the house of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, thousands of protestors gathered last week. The mob shouted defiant slogans and carried banners with anti-Palestinian messages, in anger at the announced 10 month freeze on settlement buildings on the West Bank and Jerusalem.

But where they should have been was the new suburbs of the West Bank itself. Standing on mass building sites in the area, it would be clear that their protest is not only futile, but sadly misled. The so-called ‘announcement’ that new housing permits will not be granted in the next ten months has not stopped hundreds more houses being erected, or current building work continuing. In fact, 3000 homes already under construction will be continued to be built.

In fact, more homes are under construction in the West Bank than ever before. Just over 1000 homes are being built for every 100,000 settlers, compared to 800 for those in permanent Israeli territories. Last Month, in the West Bank community of Rervara, 20 houses were erected despite opposition from the Palestinian Authorities.

And even if housing construction ceases in the area, there is a mass expansion throughout the West Bank in schools, infrastructure and public services for the new Jewish settlers. Dozens of new public buildings in the region were ordered by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak last month.

The Israeli political activist group ‘Peace Now’ reported a 60% increase in construction projects over the last year, and a classified study leaked from the Defense forces to Tel Aviv media even claimed that , last year, 3 out of 4 new settlements did not even have a building permit. So why did so many settlers turn out on a cold December evening to protest against ‘anti-settlement’ measures imposed by the Israeli Government?

Critics have suggested that the announced ‘freeze’ on building in the West Bank is a move by Netanyahu and his Cabinet to appear to appease Palestinian calls for ceased action in the occupied territories. But if The Israeli Cabinet has attempted to outmaneuver their Political counterparts by ‘faking’ a freeze and using the settlers protest as proof that they are limiting their action in the territories, it has backfired. Now the Cabinet faces opposition from two sides: the Palestinian authorities and their own settlers.

Some Political commentators have suggested, however, that strong resistance at home could help Netanyahu win internal political battles, The move has had broad support in his cabinet, ending questions over the leadership of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who was facing a fight for control of the Labour Party. Hard-line supporters have also agreed that the step could win international support at a difficult time for Israel. The threat faced from Iran’s nuclear program, along with a possible war crimes tribunal over last Decembers war in the Gaza Strip has not improved the nations’ image on an international level. The move does appear to cast the PM as a strong leader who is set to make concession despite strong opposition from the public, however. But why implement a one-time temporary freeze on movement if the aim is to make a strong political statement? Netanyahu himself has even conceded that the matter needs further discussion with settlement leaders.

The Palestinian Government spoke out this week, accusing Netanyahu and his Cabinet of not upholding their 10 month policy. They argue that there is “far from” a halt on building in the area. Yet whether they believe building is intentional, or due to a lack of forcible implementation of the policy, there is some dispute.

On the 3rd December, The Israeli PM met with 25 municipal leaders from west bank leaders in Tel Aviv, the American News Organization CNN reported. A statement was later issued by the Security Cabinet that there would be a 10 month cease in new building permits designated to settlers in the West Bank.

The Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was quick to reject the plans, adding that they were “inadequate” as they only would not apply to the occupied areas of Jerusalem, and were not part of a long-term strategy for peace. In a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres last month, the Egyptian leader Hosni Murabak argued that the state should halt settlement activity in order to give Palestine a bordered state. He stated that “partial solutions” such as temporary borders were not conducive to opening peace negotiations.

Netanyahu’s right wing government has previously been outwardly supportive of expansion, despite continued pressure from the US this year for a stalemate in building action. US authorities wish to see any moves made to restart negotiations between Palestine and Israel, after peace talks between the nations broke down 12 months ago.

If Netanyahu seeks to make a political resolve for his Cabinet through the temporary building freeze, then there are 10 tough months ahead. Settlers in the West Bank, many who turned out to protest last week, have clashed with authorities in the past month over the regulative measures imposed on new building sites. Speaking to several news organizations, several of those at the protest made claims of harassment – saying that Israeli officials had attempted to enter their new homes and inspect them without invitation. Scraps between settlers and inspectors are not uncommon, suggested Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, himself a settler. "If someone came to you and froze construction on your house while you were building it, you would also object," he told Israel Radio.

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