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Jerusalem Diary: Monday 21 September

New building at Modiin Illit - by Tim Franks
The population of Modiin Illit is growing at three times the rate of the average in Israel

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem

SETTLEMENT CITY

It's one of the grandest geo-political entities of them all, every word capitalised … The Middle East Peace Process.

But its current progress, or signal lack of it, has been hanging on something rather more lower case - whether Israel is prepared, for a few months, to stop giving out new permits for construction in West Bank settlements.

Dani Dayan believes it's not so much mundane as barmy. He's the Chairman of the Settlers' Council.

"Two pandemics are running wild all over the world," he says. "The first is swine flu, the second is 'settlement psychosis'."

"North Korea and Iran are building nuclear weapons," he goes on, "and all the world cares about is if my daughter builds her home next to me."

Moshe Affen agrees with that. He's a 34-year-old father of five. He's one of the approximately 40,000 people who live in the largest single settlement in the West Bank, Modiin Illit.

It's a remarkable place just over the line from Israel, inside the West Bank.

I don't know [the answer] - you'll have to ask God, you'll have to interview God
Moshen Affen
Seminary treacher

It is a new town - architecturally deeply un-lovely - filled, almost exclusively, with haredim, ultra-orthodox Jews. Mr Affen, a teacher in a Jewish seminary, is one of them.

We met in a hardware store. I asked him what he thought of the government's announcement that it would allow a further 84 apartments to be built in Modiin Illit.

"Ridiculous," said Mr Affen. "Every family has 10 children - every year, there are thousands of new couples who need houses."

Isn't this supposed to smooth the road to peace, though?

Mr Affen shakes his head. "I'm not right-wing," he tells me. "But the Arabs don't want us here. It's not about this place, they want Tel Aviv and Haifa and Jerusalem."

So what's the answer? "I don't know," he says. "You'll have to ask God. You'll have to interview God."

DEMAND FOR BUILDING

Across the settlements, there are complaints that there's nowhere near enough building to meet the demands of a population growing three times faster than that inside Israel. But there is still plenty of construction.

Most of the new apartment blocks are built by Palestinians from neighbouring villages. In Modiin Illit, the construction workers shrug: "it's a job," they say. "We have families to feed."

Haredi settlers at at Modiin Illit - by Tim Franks
The largest settlement has a population of 40,000 mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews

The Palestinian leadership has two big problems with the expansion of the settlements. The first is political - they say that it undermines the Road Map which Israel signed up to six years ago. The second is practical - that the settlements threaten the viability of a geographically sensible Palestinian state.

The haredi mayor, Yaakov Guterman, says that talk of a settlement freeze is particularly unfair for Modiin Illit. It's not just that 60 children are born each week, he says. He also won't accept that it's a settlement at all - with all the connotations of illegality under international law.

Everyone knows, he says, that with a final resolution, the borders will be drawn so that Modiin Illit will end up inside the state of Israel, he says. Again and again, he tells me, it is not a settlement, it is a city.

Even if it is, now, almost impossible to imagine these 40,000 haredim being removed and re-housed, Modiin Illit does, however, remain a settlement. And on its fringes is an illustration of why heated discussions about planning applications, and numbers and a temporary freeze all feel rather narrow.

Just after you turn off the highway into the settlement, behind some rather ramshackle barbed wire, is a clump of sheds and temporary cabins. They house the fire station, the police station and a security office.

According to the Ministry of Defence's own database - some of which has been made public under freedom of information - and according to the government's own mapping, the fire station, the police station and the security office are all outside the officially designated boundaries of the settlement, on privately-owned Palestinian land.

One of the senior fire officers told us he had heard that his fire station was off-limits. The mayor, Yaakov Guterman, said he hadn't. "I've never been told this," he insisted. "Nobody's talked to me about it."

As for the civil administration, the official Israeli supervising authority for the West Bank, we gave them several days to come up with an answer to the apparently illegally - under Israeli law - situated police station. Their response: "The issue is currently under investigation".

On one level, this is, of course, fabulously minor… whether a police station or a fire station is a few metres either side of a line, a line which in turn marks what only one country - Israel - regards as an official boundary.

But this, it seems, is the level on which we are now operating. Even in the tiny area of the West Bank, there are a thousand disputes and heaven knows how many apparent breaches of Israel's own rules.

Talk now of limits and freezes, is talk of a wobbly target pinned to a blurred picture. And that - remember - is talk aimed simply at getting us to the point where negotiations can begin to try to resolve all this.


Here is a selection of your comments:

One correct insight is that the definition of a settlement as being illegal or legal is totally random. It is our land. We should live anywhere we choose within it. And so should the (large) Arab minority. There is no way to cut it into two viable entities (or three, as Gaza is a third). The idea of peace in pieces is a farce
Yoni, Jerusalem, Israel

I have been living in Israel for close to eight years now, and I want to share with you that the vast majority of civilian interaction among Jews and Arabs is quite civil. The fact that people need to find housing within the same country where they were born and raised is a universal issue, no different than anywhere else in the world. The limitations of this "construction freeze" are absolutely ludicrous.
Ariel Maik, Jerusalem, Israel

As much as I support Israel, the continuation of settlement building is an obstacle to the peace process. Neither Palestinian nor Israeli political leadership is capable of making the hard decisions and concessions that will have to be made under the Road Map. The longer the delay, the weaker and more marginalized the Fatah leadership will become.
KMBerger, Fayetteville, United States

Israel is moving closer and closer to suicide. They need to accommodate a Palestinian state with viable boundaries. They are making such a state impossible. As a Jew, I feel helpless, watching this tragedy unfold.
David Kleinberg-Levin, New York,

Nobody is going to remove these "settlements". They are going to grow exponentially until the Arabs agree to peace with Israel. The longer it takes for this to happen, the less land they will have for their state. It is up to them.
Jonathan Dembo , Greenville USA

This is a great piece Tim because I believe it has highlighted a significant point. Over half of the Jews who live in land Occupied by Israel after 1967 live so close to the previous border. Modiin is not the only example. By calling them settlements it looks like the 'problem' is bigger than it really is.
Aryeh, formerly Jerusalem

If Israel would go back to pre 1948 borders then it will be continuously attacked just like it was between 1948 and 1967. The only reason Israel has had a somewhat peaceful existence is due to this annexation.
Elenn, Bet Shemesh

There's no doubt that the Middle East Peace Process will be unsuccessful with such actions on the part of Israel. The questions of the year seems to be that why is Israel so committed to building settlements in Palestinian territory? Is Israel running out of living space?
Waqas Hassan, Peshawar, Pakistan

What everyone seems to forget is that the so called lines were created from the armistice of 1949. They are not final boundaries. This settlement or town will not have any huge impact on preventing a viable creation of a Palestinian State. I think the bigger issue would be how to connect a Hamas Gaza with a Fatah West Bank cutting through Israel.
Mike, New York, USA



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