Donald Macintyre: A nation that needed to be built from scratch

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The Independent Online

For since the seizure of the territories after the Six-Day War in 1967, there has been a huge growth in the number of Israelis living in what had been since 1948 Jordanian and Egyptian-controlled land. From a base of zero there are now around 240,000 Israelis living in settlements in the occupied West Bank, the vast majority of them in purpose-built permanent housing.

They range from remote hilltop communities in the northern West Bank to the three big urban settlement blocks of Ariel, Gush Etzion and Maale Adumim, which in scale and population density are more like - say - Milton Keynes than the barbed-wire surrounded caravan clusters which, with the exception of the outposts, mainly exist only in popular imagination. The biggest, Maale Adumim, was originally designed - to the specifications of a ministerial committee led by Ariel Sharon - by a British and US-trained Israeli architect Thomas M Leitersdorf. And the land earmarked for Maale Adumim's eventual expansion would, if ever built upon, make the city in its entirety bigger than Tel Aviv.

While Israel contests that they are not illegal, all the settlements in the West Bank - and those in Gaza housing almost 10,000 people until they were flattened last year - have been judged by the UN, and most recently by the International Court of Justice, as violations of international law relating to occupations. Ehud Olmert, the favourite to succeed Mr Sharon as Prime Minister, has indicated he envisages a withdrawal from at least some settlements in the West Bank as happened in Gaza. But while all three of the big blocks are on the eastern side of the 1949-1967 "green line" and therefore fall into the same category in international law, both Mr Sharon and Mr Olmert have repeatedly made clear they expect them to stay within Israel under any final status deal with the Palestinians.

Lord Rodgers and his colleagues have also identified as objectionable "Jewish only" housing and communities in the Galilee and the Negev. This falls into a different category since the area has been Israel since 1948 and does not relate to the post-1967 occupation. But it is true that Israel makes no secret of its desire to put more settlers - including some from the Gaza and West Bank - in what has long been sparsely populated desert areas inhabited by the Bedouin, Arabs who are citizens of Israel and frequently serve in its army. Which is one reason why it has sought to move several thousand Bedouin from "unregistered" villages and concentrate them in specially designated towns and villages.