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No let-up to Jewish building projects

SPEAKING over the thunder of bulldozers, Ismael, the Palestinian foreman at the West Bank's biggest Jewish settlement, said yesterday he had received no orders to stop his men working.

'This is a normal day. Look around you,' he said, pointing across the steep valley where giant cutters were slicing into the hillside, preparing the ground for more than 1,000 new Jewish homes. The Mount of Olives, in the midde distance, was obscured by a cloud of white dust.

If James Baker, the US Secretary of State, wants any proof during his visit to Israel that Jewish settlement is continuing apace, he need only take a 10-minute drive from Jerusalem to Maale Adummim. The settlement is technically in the occupied West Bank, but it is growing so fast that it almost adjoins Jerusalem.

Sprawling across the hilltops on the edge of the Judaean desert, it must be the fastest-growing suburb in the world. Cranes swing confidently through the sky, while below, concrete blocks pile up relentlessly to form row upon row of new 'units' - as the settlers' lego-like homes are called.

Yesterday the Israeli cabinet confirmed a decision taken by the Housing Ministry last week to freeze all new building contracts in the West Bank and Gaza while the country's building needs and settlement policy are assessed. The decision was designed to please Mr Baker and ease the way to the release of dollars 10bn in US loan guarantees. But the evidence on the ground is that the freeze has had no effect. It will take a strong arm to pull the stop button on Maale Adummim.

The foreman - who wished only to be known as Ismael - said all the men who worked under him were Palestinians. He saw no irony in the fact that they were helping the Israelis build homes on Palestinian land.

'Yes it is our land. We want our land back. But we have to work. We have to eat to feed our children,' he said. 'If we Palestinians were not doing this then they would get Russians or others to do it for them.' Ismael has six children and lives in the a poor suburb of Arab East Jerusalem.

Ismael said he wanted peace. He hoped that the talks between Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, and Mr Baker would produce a solution.

'Perhaps the Palestinians will live in these houses eventually,' he said, grinning. Then he added: 'But Israel will never allow it.'

In the contractor's office, the plans for Maale Adummim were laid out neatly on the walls. The settlement already houses 15,000 people in 3,200 units. Under construction are 1,000 new homes which will house about 4,500 people. The master plan for Maale Adummim envisages a city of 50,000 people. The settlement's municipal boundaries spread far out into the West Bank, almost to Jericho, nearly 10 miles away.

Ben Greenberg, the deputy mayor, says that most residents are confident that Maale Adummim will never be 'frozen' because it is inside what Mr Rabin calls 'greater Jerusalem' and will therefore be defined as a 'security settlement' - necessary for Israel's defences. The new Prime Minister has said security settlements will be exempt from a building freeze, but he has yet to clarify which are 'security settlements' - and this will be a point at issue with Mr Baker today. In the past, the US has called for a total building freeze, but is showing signs of new flexibility.

'We hope we will still be able to achieve our objective of doubling the population in four to five years,' said Mr Greenberg, a lawyer, who along with the majority of the settlement's population, voted for the defeated Likud party in the June election.

'We did not give Rabin a blank cheque to dismantle 25 years of building,' Mr Greenberg said. 'Every city has to grow. We have to have new schools, roads and hospitals. If they try to stop us we will use every legal means to fight it.'

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