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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 November 2005, 15:47 GMT
Israel's 'linchpin' settlement
By Raffi Berg
BBC News website, Maale Adumim

Additions to the settlement of Maale Adumim continues unabated
Construction work in Maale Adumim is continuing apace
On a hill east of Jerusalem stands the settlement of Maale Adumim, the fate of which is emerging as one of the thorniest and most critical issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians.

When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unveiled his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, he made clear that part of that plan would involve strengthening the major settlement blocks in the West Bank - of which Maale Adumim is the largest.

"These will be an integral part of the State of Israel in any future agreement [with the Palestinians]," he said in December 2003, a position endorsed by US President George W Bush some months later.

Home to 30,000 settlers, Maale Adumim's municipal borders are larger than those of the metropolis of Tel Aviv, stretching almost to Jericho in the east and Jerusalem in the west.

But it is built on land claimed by the Palestinians for a future state and, like all settlements, is considered illegal under international law - although Israel disputes this.

New apartments

Construction work in Maale Adumim is continuing apace, to meet the demands of what Israel calls "natural growth".

Israel has frozen plans to expand Maale Adumim - for now

In the east of the settlement, in an area known as 07, apartment blocks are being built to accommodate 3,500 people, enticed by economic concessions from the government.

Official spokesman Mark Regev denies it is a violation of the roadmap peace plan, under which Israel agreed to freeze all settlement building.

"Israel takes our roadmap commitments very seriously and is acting in accordance with them. We have a policy not to build new settlements or outwardly expand existing settlements," he said.

Ironically the construction workers are predominantly Palestinians, unable to find work elsewhere.

Settlement of Maale Adumim

"Other Palestinians are not angry at us," said 42-year-old labourer Mahmoud Ibrahim, from the West Bank village of Anata.

"They understand there is no other way to get money and the most important thing for us is to feed our children," added the father-of-five, who earns 3,000 shekels ($650) a month.

To the north of the settlement plans are under way for one of the most sensitive building projects in the West Bank.

Here, in an area called E1, Israel wants to build more homes and ultimately connect the settlement to east Jerusalem, about six kilometres away.

Crucial period

The Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now says that would be a disaster for the Palestinians because it would cut off east Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank and prevent the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state.

"Maale Adumim is critical for a future peace deal," said Peace Now spokeswoman Hagit Ofran.

Widely regarded by international community as illegal under international law according to Fourth Geneva Convention (article 49), which prohibits an occupying power transferring citizens from its own territory to occupied territory
Israel argues international conventions relating to occupied land do not apply to West Bank because they were not under the legitimate sovereignty of any state in the first place

"You can't really have a viable Palestinian state without territorial continuity. This is really the place at the centre of this problem."

For Israel, building on E1 is crucial in consolidating its hold over the whole of Jerusalem and having a security buffer in the east.

But under US pressure, plans to start building there have been postponed, a state of affairs which has angered Maale Adumim Mayor Benny Kashrie.

"The Palestinians misinform the Americans and the Europeans - they say building in E1 will cut a Palestinian state in two. This is absolutely not true at all," he said.

"The municipal border will be open, and right now our government is building a new $42m ring-road connecting east Jerusalem with Ramallah and Bethlehem, enabling the Palestinians to move north to south freely, without passing any checkpoints.

"Our government should go to the White House and say 'Look, you are our friends and we appreciate it, but we have our red line and that is to freeze building in Maale Adumim'," Mr Kashrie said.

'Key to Jerusalem'

So important is the issue that Ariel Sharon's political rival Binyamin Netanyahu chose E1 as the place from which to launch his campaign to unseat the prime minister in September 2005.

Shulamit Fisch
Does it stand in the way of a Palestinian state? I hope so - it should prevent a Palestinian state
Maale Adumim resident Shulamit Fisch
"This is Jerusalem, it's our capital," he said, standing on a barren hilltop.

"Nobody can tell us to freeze building in our capital. What we need to do is to break this siege by building here."

Preparatory work is in evidence in E1. A dirt track leading to Jerusalem - the basis for a future road - is already in use on the hillside, while the foundations for a police station have been laid.

Nowhere is the future of E1 felt more strongly than in the settlement itself.

"Maale Adumim is a very strategic place," said settlement resident Itay Cohen, 25.

"It is important to connect it to Jerusalem to protect the residents there and show Israel is here in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] to stay."

It was a view echoed by another resident, Shulamit Fisch.

"Does [Maale Adumim] stand in the way of a Palestinian state? I hope so. It should prevent a Palestinian state. There won't be peace through land for peace. Only peace for peace. People who believe in land for peace are dreaming."

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