In talks at the White House earlier this week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Obama called for an end to Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, where Palestinians hope to build their independent state.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeated the U.S. position while testifying Wednesday before a Senate panel. "We made it very clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu, as you know when he was here, that our government favors a two-state solution — that is the goal of our efforts, and the president was explicit in calling for a stop to the settlements," Clinton said.
Many Israeli politicians, including the previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert, have called for the handover of most of the West Bank in exchange for keeping several large settlements around Jerusalem.
But Netanyahu leads a new, largely right-wing government that is in favor of expanding Jewish settlements.
An estimated 250,000 Jewish settlers are living on territory captured by Israel in 1967. They claim they have a right to be on the land, but their presence is a major point of contention in efforts to achieve Middle East peace.
Settlers Say Expansion Will Continue
In Kiryat Arba, a Jewish settlement that spreads over the tops of several stark brown hills near the West Bank city of Hebron, the sentiment is clear, and leaders are unconcerned about pressure from Washington.
Despite an earlier Israeli government attempt to ban new settlement construction, Elyakim Haetzni says the reality is that existing West Bank settlements are expanding.
"There is no freeze. You know that there is no freeze. We are building all the time," says Haetzni, 82, a German-born former lawyer and one of the founders of the settler movement. He says the Jewish population continues to expand in the West Bank, known to Israelis as Judea and Samaria.
"In all those years of so-called freeze, the growth in population in Judea and Samaria was two or three times more than in any other part of the country," Haetzni said.
It is a rare point of agreement among settlers and anti-settlement groups.
"There was never a real settlement freeze. And unfortunately in the last year, starting in the end of 2007, there's been an increase in settlement expansion," says Hagit Ofran, who monitors settlement growth for the Israeli activist group Peace Now. "In general, they build a lot, and there are a lot of new settlers every year coming to live in the West Bank."
Settler groups contend that a settlement freeze would limit their ability to expand their communities, stopping successive generations who grew up on settlements from building homes near their parents.
Israelis Eye Settlements As Affordable Housing Option
But recent figures from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics show that demand for settlement housing comes primarily from Israelis migrating to settlement communities, where housing is often cheaper.
In Nokdim, where Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman lives, settlers say there is a waiting list of up to 50 families eager to move in.
"People all the time [are] calling to check if there are houses to come and see. More people are moving in here regularly," says Susie Cohen, who lives in Nokdim with her husband and four children.
Cohen says a new road that shortens the drive to Jerusalem was opened recently, which has made the settlement more attractive for commuters.
Michal Kupinski, who organizes cultural events in Nokdim, says the settlement is now home to 170 families — secular and religious Jews — and it could be even bigger.
"The community could use new energies and new people. And there are beautiful things happening here in the community, and a lot of people want to be part of it, and it's a pity that they can't," she says.
In Kiryat Arba, Haetzni says settlements are growing, and Israeli government restrictions have limited growth.
"Both are true. In other words, if there were no freeze, we would have built three or four times more. And yet the other thing is also true — it is not a freeze," he says. "I can give you an example: In Kiryat Arba, we brought recently 20 caravans. And then we have places, I won't tell you where, where houses were built illegally."
He says that even if Netanyahu bows to Washington's demands to stop settlement expansion, settlements will slowly continue to get bigger.
"The authorities are fed up. They have no money. They have no forces to waste on this. Anything they destroy is built again," he says. "The government doesn't have the power to prevent it."