Quietly, Not Peacefully

The outpost of Haroe is booming. During the past year and a half, 14 Jewish families have laid claim to this barren hilltop south of the West Bank city of Nablus, erecting 20 mobile homes, a rudimentary sewage system, a generator, a playground and a synagogue. A road snaking up to the unauthorized settlement was paved in November 2003. Although Haroe is one of a handful of isolated outposts that have been designated for dismantling by the Israeli Army, most of its settlers don't expect to be going anywhere. In fact, they've laid foundations for six permanent houses and are waiting for permission to finish construction. "We get the impression from Sharon that we can build--as long as we do it quietly," says David Llera, 40, a Mexican-Jewish immigrant who works at Haroe as a security guard.

And building they are. In the wake of President Bush's expression of support for Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip, Israel is moving rapidly ahead with plans to strengthen its hold over the rest of the occupied territories. Bush has given Sharon the green light for Israel's retention of several large West Bank settlement blocs and has stopped pressing for an immediate settlement freeze. Sharon has pledged to remove only four tiny settlements in the northern West Bank--or about 700 of the territories' more than 230,000 settlers. And Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced last week that Israel will pour tens of millions of dollars into Jewish communities on the West Bank even as it pulls out of Gaza. In yet another indication that the Israeli government no longer feels bound by past commitments, Sharon said Friday that he was abandoning a pledge he gave Bush not to harm Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. "I said during our first meeting about three years ago that I accepted his request not to harm Arafat physically," Sharon told Israel's Channel 2. "But I am released from this commitment."

Construction is surging in the West Bank. In 2003 there were 1,800 housing starts in the occupied territories, an increase of 65 percent from the previous year. In Efrat, a settlement of 8,000 people eight miles south of Jerusalem, eight new two-family houses have just been built. "We felt it was important to establish a new neighborhood," says Eve Harow, an American-born member of the regional council. What Israel calls "unauthorized outposts" are also growing fast. More than 50 have sprung up since Sharon took power three years ago, raising the total to 102, according to the Israeli group Peace Now. And despite Sharon's pledge to dismantle them, the Army has taken down just 10, only two of them inhabited. The total population in the outposts has soared from 1,000 three years ago to about 2,000 today.

Atop the ridgeline of rocky hills southeast of Ariel--the West Bank's largest settlement--clusters of mobile homes linked by both dirt and asphalt roads now form a near-contiguous bloc that bisects Palestinian territory. Several of these neighborhoods, as the settlers call them, now have permanent housing tucked discreetly out of sight of the main highways. Many are protected by the Israeli military, and some have been labeled "education institutes" to avoid identification as unauthorized settlements. "The [illegal] construction is out of control," says Dror Etkes, who monitors West Bank settlements for Peace Now.

Israel spends at least $600 million a year on settlements, according to a study by the daily newspaper Haaretz. But the money trail is hard to follow. Attorney General Meni Mazuz has charged that large sums are illicitly spent by regional councils on outpost infrastructure--including tarmac roads, sewers, water and power. Last week he ordered a freeze on settlement-construction funds until an oversight committee is set up. But the funds are buried inside the budgets of a half-dozen government ministries, and the ruling could be impossible to implement. "Mazuz can't do this by himself," says Etkes. "You need a governmentwide decision." Without a strong stand by the United States, that's not likely to happen.