KRYAT ARBA, The West Bank – The trip from Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station to Kiryat Arba, a settlement next to Hebron, in the southern West Bank, takes just under an hour, including a couple of detours to other outlying settlements, via a public bus with bullet-proof windows.
Along the way, the capital’s urban sprawl gives way to a biblical landscape of majestic hills with ancient stone terraces planted with grapevines, crops and olive trees. Every once in a while a glistening white Jewish settlement or low-lying Arab village comes into view, but it quickly recedes into the same landscape the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs traversed thousand of years ago.
Just past the gated entrance to Kiryat Arba, which, with 9,000 residents, has all the infrastructure of a small town, building crews are once again on-site following the nine-month, American-imposed settlement-building freeze.
Soon after the moratorium ended in late September, builders brought in heavy moving equipment to lay the foundations for all 150 of the settlement’s apartments affected by the freeze. All had been approved by the government years ago, but their foundations hadn’t been laid. Three months later, the apartments, located in four- to five-storey white stone buildings with sukkah balconies, are in varying states of construction, but all should be completed within a year or so.
Kiryat Arba is just one of the dozens of settlements to resume building, according to Peace Now, which keeps precise records on all building starts anywhere in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. So far, construction has begun on 1,700 housing units (out of a total of 13,000 potential units approved prior to the freeze).
No additional building permits have been approved since the end of the moratorium, according to Hagit Ofran, director of Peace Now’s settlement watch project. Even so, those on the political left insist that the current construction is harming the peace process.
In an interview with the Jewish Week, Ofran said “a big part” of the current construction is taking place in so-called outlying settlements the Israeli government has indicated might be expendable in a final peace deal with the Palestinians.
Unlike, say, Efrat and Ma’aleh Adumim, both large settlements near Jerusalem that successive governments have vowed to retain, outlying settlements like Kiryat Arba, Ofra and Tapuah are not “consensus” communities most Israelis feel are vital to Israel’s security and therefore not expendable.
That the Netanyahu government has given the go-ahead to up to 13,000 new homes, albeit ones approved up to 25 years ago, “is another message to Palestinian and Israelis that we’re not intending to leave these areas,” Ofran said. “The moratorium turned into a 10-month construction delay and nothing more.”
Ofran said Peace Now is especially concerned about the outlying settlements, because “every person who comes to live in these settlements makes it harder to relinquish. There will be more people to move, more money to expend” in the event Israel quits part of the West Bank.
Knesset Member Danny Danon from the right-wing Likud Party, insists that the Palestinians, not Israeli settlers, are keeping the two sides apart.
“First of all, if people want to live peacefully, the presence of Jews should not be an obstacle to peace, in the same way that Jews, Christians and Muslims live together in the Galilee. I don’t see why it can’t happen in Judea and Samaria,” Danon said, using the Hebrew terms for the territories of theWest Bank.
Danon blamed Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, for blocking many past requests for building permits, and for refusing to issue new ones.
“Look at the actual building going on in large communities like Ma’aleh Adumim, Efrat, Gush Etzion,” Danon said. “The numbers are merely symbolic.”
Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, a pro-coexistence organization, considers the resumption of West Bank construction a potential danger to Israel because it could prompt widespread international recognition of a Palestinian state outside the framework of a peace agreement.
In a Jerusalem Post op-ed, Baskin wrote, “If Israel is unwilling, or unable to act in its own best interests by ending the occupation, the international community does not have to sit idly by as the best chance of peace withers away once again.”
Baskin said most world leaders “have come to the conclusion that the Netanyahu government has nothing to offer the Palestinians and that another round of negotiations at this time will be fruitless.”
While the policymakers bicker over the settlement issue, the settlers themselves continue life as if the building freeze were simply a blip.
In Kiryat Arba, a nondescript place with multi-dwelling white stone apartment buildings, parks and schools, and whose population is 70 percent religious Zionist and 30 percent non-religious, people reject the notion that they might be uprooted in a peace agreement.
Selling sandwiches to fellow Kiryat Arba residents, Gilly Mizrachi, owner of Orange, a small snack-shop/diner with vinyl records on the wall, noted that his family has lived here since 1971, the year the settlement was created.
“I’ve lived here my entire life,” said Mizrachi, 36. “My entire family lives here. For me, all this discussion about the settlements is a political war with no basis in fact. If Jews don’t continue to build here, in 100 years there won’t be a State of Israel.”
Tzvi Katsover, the settlement’s former mayor, agrees. Gazing out his living room window, at Kiryat Arba in the foreground and the high-rise buildings of Hebron — home to more than 100,000 Arabs and 700 Jews, just a couple of miles away – Katsover, a distinguished-looking man in his 60s, insisted that settlements “are the first line of defense” against those who wish to destroy Israel.
“The Arabs don’t want just Hebron and Shilo; they want Tel Aviv, Ramle, and Jaffa,” Katsover said ominously.
Ironically, as the international community is trying to end settlement activity, the Palestinian Authority this week reversed its decision to bar Palestinian workers from working in settlements because it cannot offer alternative employment.
On Tuesday, Haaretz reported that up to 35,000 Palestinian workers are currently working in settlements, many of them as construction workers.
“I have to feed my family,” a Palestinian construction worker said from his cement truck in Kiryat Arba. “Peace is a nice dream but in the meantime, we’ve got to eat.”