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The New York Times

May 21, 1997

U.S. Says Many Homes in Jewish Settlements Are Empty

Map Jewish Settlements in the West Bank

By Joel Greenberg

JERUSALEM -- American diplomats here have concluded that a quarter of the homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and half of those in the Gaza Strip are empty, raising questions about the Israeli government's contention that it is expanding the settlements to accommodate natural growth.

The American figures, disclosed by the daily newspaper Haaretz and confirmed by U.S. officials, were immediately denounced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as "groundless" and dismissed by the settlers as false.

The settlements have long been one of the most contentious issues between Washington and Jerusalem. Netanyahu's determination to expand them has been criticized by American officials as hampering peace efforts because they make it more difficult to negotiate a territorial compromise between Israel and the Palestinians.

In a rare public assessment of Israeli policy, Edward Abington, the American consul-general in Jerusalem, said on Tuesday that the reported vacancy rate "strikes me as undercutting the argument that settlement expansion is based on natural growth and demand for housing."

"It seems to be more ideologically driven," he said.

For several years, American diplomats in Israel have routinely monitored the development of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, visiting the sites to collect data and reportedly using satellite photos to follow their growth. Their findings are not normally made public and it was not known whether previous surveys had detected similar vacancy rates.

Last August, Netanyahu's government lifted curbs on expansion of Jewish settlements, saying that it was meeting their needs for natural growth. But the American findings indicate that in at least part of the settlements, there is no need for more housing.

According to the figures, which were last updated in February, 25 percent of the homes in West Bank settlements are empty, and 50 percent in the Gaza Strip. In the Golan Heights, 25 percent of homes in Jewish settlements are vacant, and 5 percent are vacant in Jewish neighborhoods built in East Jerusalem, according to the data.

There are approximately 140,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It could not be learned how many Israelis live in the Golan Heights or in the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

Visiting West Bank settlements in the Jordan Valley on Tuesday, Netanyahu brushed off the American calculations as inflated.

"This is a groundless assertion; I can assure you that this is not the situation," Netanyahu told reporters. "I can't give you precise figures, but the so-called report today is false by an order of magnitude, to put it mildly. It's a fraction of that, a very small fraction."

The head of the settlement department of the Jewish Agency, Salai Meridor, said that there were "almost no vacant apartments" in the settlements, and their population has been growing steadily in recent years.

Leaders of the 140,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip agreed.

Pinchas Wallerstein, the chairman of the settlers' umbrella group, called the American figures a "fraud" designed to bring pressure on Netanyahu to halt settlement building.

He acknowledged that there were empty homes in smaller Jewish communities in the heart of the West Bank, but he added that "there are no apartments available" in larger settlements within commuting distance of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where most of the settlers live.

At the sprawling West Bank settlement of Ariel north of Tel Aviv, Zehava Adar, the town clerk, said on Tuesday that its 3,300 apartments were full.

But at the small settlement of Yitzhar, near the Palestinian city of Nablus, American officials recently found that half the structures were empty. Dozens of empty mobile homes were parked this week at the settlements of Ofra and Eli, north of Ramallah.

In the Gaza Strip, Aharon Tzur, the council clerk of the Katif Bloc, which is the main Israeli settlement in the area, said that 340 apartments were vacant out of a total of about 1500 homes.

"I wish I had half the empty apartments they say we have, so I could absorb the people who want to come," he said.

Israeli settlement activity has been a major obstacle to the resumption of stalled negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The talks broke down in March when the Israelis began work on a new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem, setting off Palestinian street riots and the bombing of a Tel Aviv cafe.

The Palestinians argue that Israel must stop its settlement work because it predetermines the outcome of future negotiations on a final peace agreement. The Israelis say that settlement building is not a violation of their accords with the Palestinians, and demand tougher Palestinian action to fight terrorism, including a resumption of security cooperation with Israel.

© Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

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