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Palestinians see Israeli 'growth' as roadblock

By John King, CNN Chief National Correspondent
updated 8:32 AM EDT, Thu March 21, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Some argue growth of Israeli settlements make it more difficult to draw a contiguous Palestinian state
  • Israeli mayor: "This place doesn't disconnect the Palestinian state. ... It is not a buffer at all"
  • Palestinian: "They take our land. They take our land"
  • Obama's view: No more settlement building unless it's agreed to in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations

MA'ALE ADUMIM, West Bank (CNN) -- The map on the wall of Mayor Benny Kashriel's office shows the growth of this West Bank settlement -- shopping mall and all -- to a bustling community of 40,000.

And in the upper left hand corner, a lonely police station and lines drawn to highlight the so-called E-1 parcel the mayor hopes is soon busy with construction -- even though the visiting President Barack Obama would be furious if the Israeli government gave the green light.

"I expect my prime minister to take care of our young couples who have been born in Ma'ale Adumim, that have been raised and educated in Ma'ale Adumim and now these young couples want to live by their families. ...It is not human to not let them live in the place that they have been born."

What the mayor describes as logical growth of his "residential community," Israeli critics call the latest effort by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in diplomatic lingo, to change the facts on the ground.

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Meaning change the map of Israel and its West Bank settlements in ways that make it more difficult -- some argue impossible -- to draw a contiguous Palestinian state as part of any peace agreement.

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Kashriel insists, when it comes to Ma'ale Adumim and E-1 anyway, those critics are wrong, and he wrote Obama asking him to visit, knowing the answer would be no.

So why bother?

"Because he (Obama) hears all the time the disinformation, lies, started from the Palestinians," Kashriel told CNN. "The place we are talking about, E-1, is a regular residential neighborhood that we needed for young couples. This place doesn't disconnect the Palestinian state. ... It is not a buffer at all."

Ala Salman is among the many Palestinians who say the Israelis are not to be believed -- or trusted.

He lives in the village of Beit Safafa, a short walk from his uncle's house and the neighborhood schools, clinic and mosque. But not for long: Israel is constructing a highway to connect its West Bank settlements to Jerusalem, and the early construction already cuts a swath through Beit Safafa.

"It will change our life and they will cut the village," Salman said. "They will cut and destroy the families. ... They take our land. They take our land."

Land is the prime currency of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and there is no question Israel under Netanyahu is redrawing the map.

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There was a settlement freeze in Netanyahu's first year in office in 2009. But after modest new construction that year, critics point to this: Construction then accelerated and in 2012 boomed at a rate five times that of 2010 -- Netanyahu's first full year in office -- according to numbers by Israeli activist group Peace Now.

Much of the planned new construction stems from Netanyahu's displeasure with the U.N. vote in favor of Palestinian statehood.

A new subdivision under construction within the existing Ma'ale Adumim boundaries is one example of resumed building activity. Another is in the construction of a new school, and plans for additional homes, in the West Bank settlement of Efrat.

During his visit, Obama will again make the case to Netanyahu that such building is counterproductive and a major obstacle to resuming some form of peace process. In the president's view, there should be no more settlement building unless it is agreed to in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

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Eve Harow believes the president -- her president -- is wrong.

Harow moved to Israel nearly 25 years ago from Los Angeles and lives with her family in Efrat.

"He's made the Palestinian Authority more intransigent," Harow said of Obama. "They can't say they will talk to the Israelis while they are building settlements if the American president said we are the problem."

Harow calls herself a firm believer in "co-existence," regardless of whether Palestinians get a full-fledged independent state, or whether the debate about a two-state solution gives way to something else.

At the moment, however, she is nervous about a recent uptick in violence, including stone throwing incidents -- aimed at cars -- on settlement roads.

"We feel it on the roads here, definitely, that there is an upswing in violence," Harow told CNN. "But I don't think the settlements are the reason for the tension. The reason for the tension is there are people who think terror will get them what they want."

The Palestinians, much of the international community, and the visiting American president disagree, asserting the construction does have a role in the breakdown of dialogue.

But the school and other construction visible from Harow's Efrat living room is proof the Israeli government, at least at the moment, disagrees.

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