Jewish settlers accused their government on Wednesday of holding up construction of more than 4,000 apartments in large West Bank settlements, suggesting that Israel is quietly complying with U.S. demands to reinstate a building moratorium that expired in late September.
The settlers, releasing their first concrete figures on what projects are being blocked, say Defense Minister Ehud Barak is imposing a silent freeze by withholding his final approval of building plans.
Barak's office responded that with the end of the slowdown, the government decides about further construction, and "every request is considered on its merits."
The issue of Israeli settlement construction has become a key sticking point in U.S.-backed peace talks, just weeks after their launch at a White House ceremony.
Israel has been under heavy pressure to renew its moratorium, which limited new construction in West Bank settlements.
Some 300,000 Israelis already live in West Bank settlements, and the Palestinians say there is no point in negotiating if Israel continues to build homes on land they claim for a future state.
Netanyahu has refused to extend the slowdown, though officials say they are in talks with Washington on reaching a compromise. The Palestinians, backed by the Arab world, have given the U.S. until early November to work out a deal.
Naftali Bennett, director of the Yesha Council settler umbrella group, told The Associated Press that a silent moratorium was in fact under way in large, urban settlements.
Some 4,300 apartments have all the necessary construction permits, but Barak hasn't authorized the state to put these projects up for bid, in effect freezing them, Bennett said. He provided a list of projects he said were being held up.
Palestinian spokesman Ghassan Khatib said any drag on construction was "irrelevant" because construction continues elsewhere at a pace that outstrips that of recent years.
"That's why it doesn't make any sense to consider that there is any kind of freeze or any kind of slowdown. We can say the opposite," Khatib said.
As previously reported by The Associated Press, Israel has begun work on some 600 apartments across the West Bank since the 10-month moratorium expired _ at least double the pace of the previous two years.
That work has begun because all necessary approvals had already been obtained before the slowdown went into effect last November. Many of those apartments are being built in outlying settlements expected to be evacuated under any peace deal with the Palestinians.
The overwhelming majority of the apartments that Bennett referred to lie in large settlement blocs that Israel expects to hold on to in any peace deal. These blocs are located close to Israel proper, and Israel would presumably swap an equivalent amount of territory with the Palestinians.
The biggest projects are 978 apartments in the ultra-Orthodox Betar Illit settlement and 507 in Givat Zeev, both near Jerusalem, and 800 in Alfe Menashe, a bedroom settlement outside Tel Aviv.
Roughly 80 percent of the 300,000 West Bank settlers live in the urban settlements where settlers say the silent freeze is in effect.
In violence Wednesday, the Israeli military fired a tank shell at two Palestinian men who were approaching the security fence separating southern Israel from the Gaza Strip. The Islamic Jihad militant group said one of its members was hit by a tank shell while following tank movements near the border.
The Palestinians hope to establish a state that includes the West Bank and Gaza, with east Jerusalem as its capital. However, internal Palestinian divisions that have left them with two rival governments have complicated the peace efforts.
President Mahmoud Abbas, who governs in the West Bank, is conducting the peace talks with Israel, while Gaza is controlled by Hamas, an Iranian-backed militant group that rejects compromise with Israel.
Also Wednesday, Israel said it would begin building a barrier along its long desert border with Egypt next month. Thousands of people sneak or are smuggled into Israel across the largely unguarded border every year.
Most are African refugees and job seekers, but Palestinian militants have also crossed into Israel and carried out attacks.