It’s clear that the decision does not include:
• Construction in East Jerusalem.
• Stopping construction of buildings already underway.
It is not clear:
• By what mechanism Israel will define what constitutes a building where construction has started. For instance, Peace Now revealed that settlers had started laying foundations for 800 buildings in anticipation of an announcement like this. Will work on these be frozen as a part of the moratorium?
• To what extent will Israel restrain provocative building in East Jerusalem. The fallout from the recent announcement of plans to expand Gilo indicate just how seriously these projects are seen.
U.S. policy is unchanged. As Mitchell made clear, “America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.”
The situation on the ground now:
The State Department told an Israeli reporter that: “According to data provided by the [Israeli government], there are an estimated 700 buildings currently under construction throughout the West Bank [settlements], which include about 2500 housing units.”
As of the end of September, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) estimated that 2,895 housing units were under construction in West Bank settlements. Compared to previous years this level of construction is roughly average, for example, at the end of 2008, the CBS figure for the number of units under construction was 3,209.
The amount of time it takes for new construction projects in settlements to be completed is generally 18-to-24 months.
1) The first big question, looking ahead, will be whether Israel implements this announcement in good faith. Will Israel look for loopholes to build in a fashion that emasculates this announcement? Will Israel refrain from provocative actions in East Jerusalem? How will Israel manage settlers that try to lash out violently or try to create new facts on the ground?
Actions speak louder than words. That is why Peace Now will closely monitor developments in the settlements, providing independent reporting of the extent to which Israel lives up to its pronouncements on settlements and outposts. The movement will also be paying attention to activities in Jerusalem and other key areas that can undermine the potential positive impact of a moratorium.
2) The second big question is what will happen after 10 months. Will the settlement freeze be continued?
Tens of thousands of housing units – not including government-initiated projects – could be built in the settlements based on previous approvals. In recent months the Israeli government stopped nearly all new approvals and the initiation of public projects. This led to a decrease in the number of new starts. Nevertheless, significant construction in the settlements, based on previous approvals and private initiatives continues. In the first three quarters of 2008, there were 1,647 construction starts (39% of which were initiated directly by the government, i.e. “public construction”). In the first three quarters of 2009, there were 1,198 new starts (of which less than 20% was public construction).
3) The third big question is whether this step can be leveraged to bring about meaningful negotiations.
The extent to which Israel implements this freeze in good faith can have a real impact on this outcome. For example, moving forward on construction in East Jerusalem can seriously sabotage the prospects for progress.
The Israeli cabinet’s decision to freeze settlement construction is a historic decision in the right direction
Peace Now will increase the Settlement Watch team work to ensure that this is not just another PR exercise by the government and that the settlers are will be left to take the law into their own hands.
It is hoped that the announcement of the freeze will also include the private construction throughout the West and not just the public initiative projects.
In recent months the settlers were quick to realize older building permits in order to expedite construction starts in a large number of settlements.