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An Israeli settlement in close-up

View of Givat Ze'ev from Agan Ha'ayalot (photo by Martin Asser/BBC)
Givat Ze'ev is sprouting a new neighbourhood several hundred metres away

As Israeli, Palestinian and US leaders meet again in the long-running saga of Middle East peace talks, the BBC's Martin Asser examines one of the thorniest issues on the agenda. In the first of two articles, he visits an Israeli settlement in the West Bank undergoing a major expansion.

They come in many shapes and sizes - hardline colonies deep in the West Bank, farmsteads in the Jordan valley, leafy towns within commuting distance of Tel Aviv and large developments in East Jerusalem.

But the Jewish settlement Givat Ze'ev, situated on a picturesque, undulating plain 10 minutes' drive from the northern outskirts of Jerusalem, is more dormitory town than ideological outpost.

Built, like all settlements, in defiance of international law on land captured in 1967, its location is strategically important, south of Israel's Highway 443 cutting into the West Bank for 20km to connect Tel Aviv with Jerusalem.

Yuval (photo by Martin Asser/BBC)
Apartments are cheap and the air is good. You live close to the city but you feel you are in a village
Yuval, Givat Ze'ev resident

Its population is 12,000, mostly from the liberal end of the spectrum, with an Orthodox Jewish satellite on the west side. It is the fifth largest West Bank settlement and one of the fastest growing.

Although Israel agreed to freeze settlement activity under the Roadmap peace plan, Givat Ze'ev has 750 extra housing units approved, about half of which are nearing completion and awaiting their first occupants.

Little distinguishes the settlement from any Israeli town, except a low-key security post with an open gate at the entrance.

Palestinian villages surround it, but any violence has diminished markedly as those villages are now on the other side of a wide loop of Israel's West Bank barrier around the settlement.

Pragmatic population

Givat Ze'ev has a friendly small-town atmosphere - young and old mill around a row of shops and cafes on the main street; a medical centre and a hairdresser do brisk trade.

Although Israel's settlement movement was born to advance sovereignty in the occupied territories, there was no sign - among people I spoke to - of political motives underpinning their presence.

GIVAT ZE'EV
Givat Ze'ev (photo: Martin Asser/BBC)

Founded in 1982
Named after right-wing Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky
Population 12,000 (approx) including 35% religious Jews
Six elementary schools, one junior high school

On the contrary, people mentioned affordable accommodation, that it was a good place to live and raise children, getting around was easy via 443 and other bypass roads for Israelis.

"I came here 14 years ago to enjoy quality of life," said Yuval, who did not give his second name. "Apartments are cheap and the air is good. You live close to the city but you feel you are in a village."

Everyone asserted their absolute right to live in what they considered part of Israel obtained legitimately, in their view, through conquest. One elderly man said it was the West Bank only "on paper, not in life".

But when asked if they'd be prepared to surrender their homes to enable a two-state peace deal with Palestinians, most said yes, as long as there was proper compensation.

However, there was deep scepticism that peace was possible, or that Givat Ze'ev and other settlements around Jerusalem would be forfeited to create a Palestinian state.

Diplomatic dispute

For four decades, Israeli governments have supported Jewish settlement in the West Bank, a place with strong links to Judaism and, until Jordan took control in 1948, a significant Jewish presence. The state provides funding and infrastructure, and a blanket of security from the military.

Since 1967, the Jewish population has gone from zero to about 300,000 in the West Bank and 200,000 in East Jerusalem.

Numbers have grown 5% annually since Israel signed the Oslo peace accords in 1993 - despite a stipulation that neither it nor the Palestinians took any action prejudicing the final resolution.

Lately, however, Israel's closest ally, the US, has added weight to its erstwhile diplomatically worded objections to settlement expansion.

"The US does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. It is time for these settlements to stop," President Barack Obama said in a speech in Cairo in June.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has resisted firmly this new tougher line, one of his chief arguments being that settlements must be allowed "natural growth".

In other words, younger generations of Jews shouldn't be squeezed out because they want to start families, and amenities - kindergartens, synagogues etc - must be built as required.

New development

In Givat Ze'ev's case, new construction is going on apace in an area Israelis know as the Ha'ayalot valley, which was confiscated from neighbouring Palestinian villages whose inhabitants call it Wadi Salman.

Agan Ha'ayalot (photo by Martin Asser/BBC)
Agan Ha'ayalot is isolated from the rest of the settlement near the separation barrier

Work started in 1999, but stopped in 2000 when the violence of the second Palestinian intifada put settlers off wanting to live in what is quite an exposed spot.

Each side of the valley is topped by Palestinian houses and it extends west from the main body of the settlement, with the first new houses located 700m away - or 2.5km by a winding road.

Construction in the Agan Ha'ayalot, as it is known, resumed in 2008, following completion of a section of the barrier which passes through the valley in a series of hairpin bends cut deep into the rock.

Homes in the three dozen apartment blocks have been marketed to ultra-Orthodox families whose strict religious observance means they prefer not to live among secular or more liberal Jews.

"It's not normal or natural growth, it's a dramatic expansion for a new kind of population," says Hagit Ofran, of the Israeli group Peace Now, which campaigns against settlements.

She argues that every new Jewish home in the West Bank makes "the cost of a two-state solution higher".

"We should be in the process of getting an agreement [with the Palestinians] and not building obstacles likes this," Ms Ofran says.

Mr Netanyahu has ruled out anything but a possible "scaling down" of settlement activity. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas says substantive negotiations cannot resume without a complete freeze.

In the second half of this investigation we shall see how members of the Palestinian population around Givat Ze'ev view the situation.



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