- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 17, 2001

JERUSALEM Building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza is down sharply, and both settlers and peace activists said yesterday that a year of Middle East fighting in which settlers have been targeted repeatedly has choked off demand.
The Peace Now group quoted government figures of 832 housing starts in the first half of the year, compared with nearly 4,500 in 2000, a year of peak construction despite the peace efforts of Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
The current year's figures show "a drastic reduction," said Peace Now spokesman Didi Remez. He said the group surveyed contractors of settlement projects in April and found they reported an "almost total drop-off of demand."
In a letter to U.S. Consul Ron Schlicher, Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo condemned the continuation of any settlement building, saying it has "always sent a message to the Palestinian people that Israel is not really interested in ending its illegal occupation."
A settlement freeze is a key recommendation of the international commission led by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell for restarting peace talks.
Israel's current prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has been one of the biggest backers of the settlement movement, but he set up a broad coalition government with Mr. Barak's Labor Party and has agreed to the Mitchell recommendations in principle, as have the Palestinians.
The unrest, in which 46 settlers have been killed on West Bank and Gaza roads, has caused "a very great drop in purchase of apartments and building of apartments" in the settlements, settler leader Pinhas Wallerstein told AP.
He did not give figures, but said most of the current construction is in settlements for ultra-Orthodox Jews forced out of Israeli cities by overcrowding.
Housing Ministry spokesman Moshe Eilat said construction is down because "demand is down, and there is also a business recession."
The figures referred to both private and public housing. Mr. Eilat could not specify exactly where construction was taking place, saying housing units were built where they were needed.
Mr. Barak was unavailable for comment, but his aides have argued that he allowed expansion of settlements largely in the few areas he had hoped to annex to Israel in a peace deal.
The United States now is pushing hard to end the violence, fearing it might destabilize its anti-terror coalition.
Even though a 2-week-old truce appears to be taking hold, another Islamic militant was killed yesterday the third to die in as many days.
The member of the Hamas group was killed by a blast in his Gaza home, Palestinian security officials said, apparently when a bomb he was preparing exploded. Ismail Hanaya, a Hamas spokesman, blamed Israel for the blast. The Israeli military said it knew nothing about the incident.
Two other Hamas members were killed in the West Bank in separate incidents on Sunday and Monday. Israel acknowledged the first killing, saying the target plotted a suicide bombing that killed 22 persons outside a Tel Aviv disco in June. Palestinians also hold Israel responsible for the second attack.
Sunday's killing drew criticism from the U.S. State Department. Israeli government spokesman Arie Mekel said Israel did not want to argue with the United States, but called the killings "self-defense." He said the Hamas activist had planned two suicide bombings that killed more than 20 Israelis and was planning others.
Since fighting erupted in September 2000, 681 persons have been killed on the Palestinian side and 184 on the Israeli side.
Returning from talks in Britain, Ireland and Holland, where leaders endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat complained that Israel had not carried out its promise to ease restrictions on Palestinians' travel in the West Bank and Gaza.
"There is continuous action against the Palestinian people" by Israel, he told reporters.
Palestinians claim all the West Bank and Gaza for a state and say the settlements should be removed.
Mr. Barak offered all of Gaza and more than 90 percent of the West Bank, retaining pockets of territory where the main settlement blocs were located. He argued that in this way Israel would annex only a small amount of land, where about 80 percent of the 200,000 settlers lived.
But he did not accept a "right of return" for millions of Palestinian war refugees, and the Palestinians rejected the offer.

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