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Israelis grab Arab land the easy way: On the eve of new Middle East peace talks, Sarah Helm reports from Jerusalem on a new-look town rising on the West Bank

ON A huge slab of white rock in the Judean desert, a suburban street sprang up last week. First, buildings emerged through the swirling dust, then a road, and soon Ford Sierras were parked in driveways. The road was named Primegadim Street (street of delicious fruit); houses were numbered, and muzuzahs - traditional Jewish symbols - appeared on the lintels of every door.

A corner shop arrived; then came a bus stop. A woman, a Russian Jew named Bella, was waiting for a bus into Jerusalem, where she works in the Post Office. She moved here on Wednesday and said she liked it because there was no pollution. By the end of the week, the street was almost full. New residents were sitting under bright sunshades, close to the Arab houses of Bethany, whose Palestinian residents once grazed their herds on this same terrain.

Primegadim Street is the newest street in Maale Adummim, the biggest Jewish settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which has carved its way to within yards of Arab East Jerusalem. It is a new style of settlement. Gone are the days when the government built settler homes, luring Jews to live there by giving tax incentives. And gone are the days when the US described Israeli building on occupied Arab lands as an 'obstacle to peace'.

No government complained when Primegadim Street went up last week. Private developers do the building, and the residents do not even use such old-fashioned terms as 'settler'. These Jews never have to see a Palestinian if they keep to their specially-built commuter road. They are just ordinary Israelis living in a Jerusalem suburb. Or so its seems from Primegadim Street.

Israel began its settlement drive in East Jerusalem and the West Bank soon after seizing the lands from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The drive was accelerated under the Likud government, which was defeated by Labour last year. Yitzhak Rabin, the new Prime Minister, then led the world to believe that he would curb settlement, which is banned by the Geneva Conventions. Mr Rabin has curtailed some building in outer reaches of the West Bank, but in the area of Jerusalem, Labour's bulldozers are working faster than Likud's ever did. Where 10 years ago there was nothing but desert and goats, Maale Adummim is today an urban mass, dominating this biblical panorama. A new phase of development is just being completed, bringing the population to 20,000. A vast tract of land on the settlement's southern edge is to be put out to tender next month, to create homes for another 6,000 people. Benny Kashriel, the mayor, whose family came to Israel in 1951 from Iran, maps out his long-term plans. So far, only 10 per cent of Maale Adummim's 14,000 acres has been built on. 'It's a free market out here,' he says.

This week, in Washington, the Middle East peace negotiations start again, amid intense pessimism. If there is one issue which threatens to scupper progress it is Jerusalem. Israel says the city is Israel's 'eternal undivided capital', while the Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. In the negotiations, the Palestinians are accusing Israel of delaying discussion of the city's future, in order to create 'facts on the ground' - bricks and mortar - effecting Jewish de facto control over the city.

Officially, the international community views Jewish settlement in and around Jerusalem as no less illegal than any other; US policy states that the land on which it is happening - in East Jerusalem and the adjoining West Bank areas - is occupied territory. The Bush administration last year penalised Israel for its settlement policy, but under the Clinton administration, US concern has evaporated. And Israel can claim that, because private money is being spent in places like Maale Adummim, such settlement is no longer 'government-driven' and not a cause for sanctions.

The plans for Maale Adummim were first laid in the early 1970s by one of Israel's best military strategists, Yitzhak Rabin. The land - most of it common land shared by Palestinian villages in the area for hundreds of years - was easily appropriated by the Israeli military authorities. Although the Palestinian village 'mukhtars' - or notables - knew the boundaries of their common land down to the last stone, attaching strong emotional value to it, they had never given this barren desert financial value. It could not, it seemed to them, be cultivated, so they never saw a need to register it. Vagueness about ownership made Israel's seizure process swift. The area was simply declared 'Israeli state land' and parcelled up for development. 'No Arab ever lived here. Nobody wanted to be here,' says the mayor.

Few jobs were created in Maale Adummim, thus encouraging residents to commute into the city and bond with it, blurring the boundaries. The strategy has worked. More than 80 per cent of Maale Adummim's residents work in Jerusalem.

The town exists in a legal no man's land. It is not formally 'annexed' to Jerusalem and, while it is illegal under international law, it is built 'legally' under Israeli military law on 'Israeli government land'.

In the past year, Maale Adummim has become a developer's dream - exactly as Mr Rabin must have hoped all those years ago. Pump-primed with government money, it can grow of its own accord. Young families are pouring in; the average age in Maale Adummim is 23, and 50 per cent of the population are children. The statistics and the political climate suggest this particular 'obstacle to peace' can only continue to grow.

WASHINGTON - The US State Department said yesterday that the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, and the Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, met secretly on Friday and that progress was possible in the peace talks which are to reconvene on Tuesday, Reuter reports.

(Photograph omitted)