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Wednesday, April 22, 1998 Published at 17:58 GMT 18:58 UK

Settling beyond the green line
image: [ The breaking of ground at Har Homa has provoked a crisis in the peace process ]
The breaking of ground at Har Homa has provoked a crisis in the peace process

There are currently 144 Jewish settlements dotted across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, containing some 160,000 settlers.

Their presence is the cause of serious friction and occasional violence between Israel and the Arabs, who believe the building of settlements is designed to pre-empt aspirations for a Palestinian state.

The number of settlers has expanded steadily by about 9% annually over recent years. Initially, only the religious or most nationalistic Israelis would go to the West Bank in the belief they were settling the biblical land of Israel.

Financial incentives an attraction

However, government offers of housing grants, tax relief and reduced mortgage rates have encouraged others to move in, especially to areas within commuting distance of Jerusalem.

At the start of April 1998, there were 4,800 housing units under construction, according to the Israeli group Peace Now. Many believe that the government has been getting round its claim that it has not started new settlements since it took power in 1996, by claiming that new settlements are merely extensions of existing ones.

The Labour government allowed settlements to grow near Jerusalem and the border with Israel, and along the Jordan Valley, which was considered strategic, but the current government has encouraged growth in the midst of Palestinian areas.

A crisis in relations

The area Israelis call Har Homa and the Palestinians Jabal Abu Ghneim in south-eastern Jerusalem is the most controversial of settlements. The breaking of the ground on the site in March 1997 was a primary cause of the breakdown in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

The building of settlements while efforts are underway to revive the peace process has annoyed the United States, and provoked international condemnation. The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, has called for a 'time-out' on the construction of settlements.

The British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, aroused Israeli anger when he visited the Har Homa site in March 1998, leading to the cancellation of a meeting with Netanyahu and considerable criticism from the Israeli press and public.

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Oslo in the doldrums

Land for peace: territory under dispute

Holy city creates unholy passions

Hamas challenges the peace-makers