Houses under construction in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Beitar Ilit.

© 2010 Reuters

(Jerusalem) - Israel should make permanent and total the partial "freeze" on construction in West Bank Jewish settlements, Human Rights Watch said today. Israel's construction of settlements and their infrastructure violates its obligations as an occupying power and the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank, including unjustly limiting their ability to build homes and access their lands, Human Rights Watch said.

Israel's partial freeze on new construction in settlements, except for construction in East Jerusalem or construction in the rest of the West Bank that had already started in December 2009, is due to expire on September 26, 2010.

"Israeli leaders refer to the limited settlement freeze as merely a political bargaining chip, when in fact settlement construction is illegal under the law governing occupation," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "To Palestinians in the West Bank, the settlements are a major source of daily suffering, which continued settlement expansion would only increase."

The Israeli government has approved plans that would allow settlers to build 13,000 new housing units once the freeze expires, including at least 2,066 on which preparatory work has begun or for which municipal authorities have already issued construction permits, according to photographs and official documents tabulated by Peace Now, an Israeli nongovernmental organization. Most settlements do not publish information about construction permits they have granted.

In the Beitar Ilit settlement, for example, preparatory work has begun or planning authorities have granted building permits for 150 housing units, Peace Now reported. Beitar Ilit is among the largest and fastest-growing settlements in the West Bank. From 2001 to 2009, the settlement's built‐up area expanded by 55 percent, from 127 to 198 hectares, according to an analysis of aerial photographs by the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.

Beitar Ilit is built on a hilltop overlooking the Palestinian village of Nahalin, which has 7,000 residents. As Beitar Ilit has expanded, Israeli restrictions have effectively prevented Nahalin from expanding for 15 years, providing no space to accommodate the growth of its population and its need for new housing.

Under the Israeli-Palestinian "Oslo agreements," Palestinian authorities can issue construction permits only for buildings inside the area of Nahalin that was already built up in 1995; the surrounding 600 hectares of agricultural lands owned by Nahalin residents are under full Israeli control. Village residents told Human Rights Watch that it is impossible to obtain Israeli permits to build homes outside the already built-up area of Nahalin, and that that they are running out of land for residential construction. Israeli military authorities have demolished "illegal" construction by villagers and ordered them to remove improvements to agricultural land, such as paths, fences, and trees, or face demolitions and fines.

"We hear repeatedly from Israeli leaders about the ‘natural growth' needs of Israeli settlers on occupied territory, but not a word about the virtual refusal to accommodate the natural-growth needs of the Palestinians in the area," Whitson said. "Palestinian families are forced into cramped quarters, and sometimes effectively forced to leave their villages, while they watch nearby settlements expand without limit."

Moreover, Israeli government statistics show that a significant proportion of settlement population growth results from Jewish immigration rather than from "natural growth." In 2008, the settler population grew by 5 percent, while the population inside Israel grew by 1.8 percent. According to Peace Now, immigration accounted for 37 percent of settlement growth in 2007.

Human Rights Watch documented that the sewage run-off from a southern neighborhood of Beitar Ilit has contaminated one of Nahalin's two freshwater springs and killed olive trees and grapevines. In total, according to B'Tselem, settlements produce 5.5 million cubic meters of raw sewage annually, with the flow of untreated settler waste harming many Palestinian communities in the West Bank.

Other settlements have blocked Palestinians' freedom of movement and access to lands on which their livelihoods depend. For example, in the Talmon settlement, Israeli authorities have granted building permits for 70 housing units and fully approved plans for 488 more units, according to Peace Now.

Talmon's establishment cut-off the road that connected the nearby Palestinian village of al-Janiya to the city of Ramallah, where many residents work or sell their agricultural products. The village residents, who are prohibited from entering the settlement, now must follow an indirect route to Ramallah that takes more than twice as much time.

In 2000 Talmon incorporated, fenced, and gated off part of a road that Palestinians from al-Janiya used to reach their olive groves. To travel on that road, residents now require special permission from the Israeli military, which is granted only during a few weeks each year. The Israeli military prohibits villagers from accessing roughly 73 hectares of their agricultural lands near Talmon and its outposts without special permission. Villagers told Human Rights Watch that it was impossible to cultivate and harvest their olive trees during the short periods when permission was granted. Israeli human rights organizations have brought suit to prevent Talmon from expanding still further. The case is to be heard in November.

Unjustified Israeli restrictions on Palestinians' ability to build new housing or to improve or access their agricultural lands - including discriminatory policies that encourage settlers to build in those same areas - violate Palestinians' rights to a home and freedom of movement, Human Rights Watch said.

In addition to the violations of Palestinians' human rights caused by settlement housing expansion itself, the infrastructure that Israel has built to provide services to the settlers and to protect them has significantly harmed Palestinians.

The largest settlement in the West Bank, Modiin Ilit, is also among the fastest-growing. Between 2001 and 2009, its built-up area expanded by 78 percent, from 129 to 229 hectares. Israeli authorities have already granted building permits or groundwork has begun for 260 new homes in Modiin Ilit.

Modiin Ilit lies directly west of the Palestinian village of Bil'in, and the Israeli military has constructed a separation barrier between the settlement and the village. The village council challenged the route of the barrier in court, as it cut the village off from half its land. In 2007, Israel's high court accepted the state's argument that the settlement needed the barrier for its protection against potential Palestinian attacks, but found that the route of the wall imposed "disproportionate" harm on villagers, and ordered Israeli authorities to change its route.

The Israeli military has not carried out the ruling and has in various cases administratively detained and unfairly convicted Palestinians from Bil'in, including activists such as Abdallah Abu Rahme, who have advocated non-violent protests against expropriation of their lands.

Israel has granted settlers 43 percent of the West Bank, according to official Israeli data compiled by B'Tselem. The vast majority of that area is not built up, but is included in the "jurisdictional areas" controlled by local and regional settler councils. Israeli authorities severely restrict any construction by Palestinians already living in those areas, and routinely deny Palestinians building permits and demolish "unpermitted" construction, including residential buildings, animal pens, agricultural irrigation networks, and water cisterns and traditional underground ovens.

While settlements are illegal under international law as a transfer of the civilian population of Israel into an occupied territory, Israeli authorities have failed to apply even Israeli laws to much settlement construction, further prejudicing Palestinians' rights. For example, although Israeli policy does not permit settlement construction on West Bank lands that are privately owned by Palestinians, 21 percent of the built-up area of settlements is land that Israel recognizes as Palestinian property, according to Israeli data compiled in 2009 by B'Tselem.

Israeli authorities, including the courts, have not acknowledged the illegality of settlements, or provided a sufficient justification for treating Israeli settlers and Palestinian residents differently. When asked to explain or rule on the differential treatment, Israeli authorities have either given no explanation or justified it only on the grounds of settlers' security needs without addressing the security needs of Palestinians.