Page last updated at 21:00 GMT, Tuesday, 18 August 2009 22:00 UK

New Israeli settlements 'on hold'

A crane works to construct the hilltop Israeli settlement of Maaleh Adumim, the West Bank's largest settlement
The pace of construction in settlements is picking up, campaigners say

Israel's government has stopped issuing settler housing tenders in the West Bank, hoping to reach common ground with the US, a senior minister says.

The US administration has been putting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu under pressure to freeze all settlement work, which has strained normally close ties.

"There is no freeze, there is a waiting period," said Housing Minister Ariel Atias in an Israeli radio interview.

But anti-settlement groups say work in settlements has in fact increased.

Asked about the statement that no new settler housing tenders were being issued, US President Barack Obama said there had been "movement in the right direction".

The Obama administration is being tough with us
Israeli Housing Minister Ariel Atias

Speaking after a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Washington, Mr Obama said he had been encouraged by reports of checkpoints being removed and increased economic activity in the West Bank.

"But everybody is going to have to take steps, everybody is going to have to take some risks," he added.

"It's going to require a lot of hard work."

Possible split

Mr Atias said in the radio interview: "Since the government was established five months ago, no tenders have been issued for Judea and Samaria," referring to government-issued contracts for construction of new homes in the occupied West Bank.

"It's no secret that the prime minister is trying to reach some sort of understandings with the Obama administration, which is being tough with us," he said.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama (18 May 2009)
Mr Netanyahu has refused US demands for a freeze on settlement construction

Mr Obama's administration has demanded Israel halt all settlement activity in line with the international peace plan known as the roadmap, which also demands Palestinian moves to quash anti-Israeli militants.

The US is also lobbying Arab states to persuade them to move towards normalising ties with Israel, to mitigate any concessions Israel feels it is making.

Israel insists settlements must be allowed to enjoy "natural growth", so families are not split up by any freeze.

A construction freeze could split the ruling Israeli coalition, correspondents say, as it is dominated by hardline supporters of the settler movement.

'No slowdown'

The Peace Now anti-settlement group says the last fresh government tender for settlement construction was in November 2008.

That was when former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was still in power and before the Obama administration took office.

But Mr Netanyahu's office has denied the hiatus amounted to an official freeze and continued to insist on "natural growth" construction in settlements.

Campaigners from Yesh Din said there was no sign of a slowdown on the ground, with construction continuing in government-funded projects, in the private sector and in unauthorised outposts.

"In practice, on the ground, construction is continuing and the pace is even picking up," said Yesh Din researcher Dror Etkes.

About 500,000 Jews live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements, which are illegal under international law, among 2.5 million Palestinians.

The land was captured by Israel in the 1967 war and Israel insists its undecided status means the settlements are legal. But Palestinians view them as constituting the theft of their homeland, while new projects further jeopardise their prospects of establishing an independent state.

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