TEL AVIV // For Dror Etkes, a veteran Israeli peace activist, Israel's partial freeze on settlement construction was no more than a public relations stunt. "The whole freeze was one big joke," said Mr Etkes, who has monitored the Jewish settlements in the West Bank in the past decade for several Israeli human-rights groups. "It aimed to show the US government how far Israel was willing to go to offer Palestinians gestures while on the ground everything remained the same."
Indeed, for activists who track construction in settlements, the moratorium was just the latest illustration of the close cooperation that has existed between the Israeli government and powerful settler groups since Israel's occupation of the West Bank in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. This partnership has not only allowed the settlements' population to more than triple in size since the early 1990s, but has also served as a key obstacle in on-and-off peace talks with the Palestinians. The ties also have drawn Israel international condemnation.
The current round of peace talks, which started nearly one month ago, are near collapse because Israel has rejected the demand of the Palestinians - who view the West Bank as part of their future state - to extend the partial freeze. Mr Etkes said the predominantly pro-settler government of the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, probably coordinated the starting date of the 10-month moratorium with settler groups to allow them to start work on hundreds of new homes beforehand.
The moratorium only halted new construction projects while allowing those whose building was already under way to continue. Indeed, construction starts on houses jumped by 90 per cent in the second half of last year, before the freeze began on November 26, from the first half, Mr Etkes said, citing government statistics. Such an alliance between the settlers and Mr Netanyahu's government suggests that thousands of new homes will spring up across the West Bank during the prime minister's term, despite the peace talks, activists say. They add that the right-wing shift of Israel's Jewish majority is good news for the settlement enterprise, which will probably continue to draw support from the anticipated election of other right-leaning governments in coming years.
Originally encouraged by the government after the 1967 war, in which Israel took over the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Syria's Golan Heights, settlements were established to extend the country's defences. They also were to establish a Jewish majority in the Palestinian-populated territory considered by many religiously inspired Jewish Israelis to be part of their biblical homeland. The main focus of expansion has been the West Bank, where the number of government-authorised settlements has grown to 121 from 30 in the late 1970s, while the settler population has surpassed 300,000.
Such growth was supported by governments on the Left and Right. Even Shimon Peres, the current Israeli president, who is known today as a peace advocate, was deeply involved in the settlement movement. In the mid-1970s, Mr Peres undermined the efforts of his opponent within the Labour Party, the then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, to restrain settlements. As the then-defence minister, he also endorsed the creation of Ofra, a northern West Bank community viewed as one of the flagship settlements, and which was built on mostly private Palestinian land.
Thousands of settlers also live in small, isolated outposts throughout the territories that are considered illegal under Israeli law - although the access of many of them to water and electricity suggests they are receiving covert state support. A further 200,000 Jewish settlers live in East Jerusalem, which is mostly Arab and which Palestinians want as the capital of their future state. Israel's government and judiciary have never accepted the international community's view that all the settlements are illegal.
The West Bank settlements, many of them with rows of red-roofed houses that are frequently built in concentric circles, have grown rapidly. Their populations have increased three times faster, on average, than the population within Israel proper since the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords were signed. While many people moved to the settlements for nationalist or religious reasons, some others sought to take advantage of government financial incentives such as grants and tax breaks, as well as cheaper land and mortgages.
But the settlement effort may not have lived up to all of its architects' expectations. The so-called father of the settlement movement was Ariel Sharon, a now-comatose former prime minister and army general, who commanded his West Bank followers to "seize every hilltop" in the Palestinian territories. Indeed, Mr Sharon never realised a plan that he had unveiled as agriculture minister in 1977 - called "A Vision of Israel at Century's End" - in which he predicted that two million Jews would live in the occupied territories, especially the West Bank, by the century's end.
Furthermore, even with a gradual right-wing shift of the Jewish electorate, many Israeli Jews have grown detached from the settlement movement. A small but steady majority continues to favour the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as a solution to the conflict. Hagit Ofran, a director at Peace Now, an Israeli group that monitors settlement growth, said demand among Israelis to move to West Bank settlements - even those viewed as likely to remain in Israeli hands should a peace pact be signed - is showing signs of tapering off.
Ariel, the second-largest Israeli settlement, is one example. "The image of Ariel is that it's in the Israeli consensus, but the fact is that its population of 17,000 did not really grow in the past decade," she said. Mr Etkes, the peace activist, predicted that settlement construction will continue and probably increase in coming years, but that eventually Israel will have no choice but to pull out of the West Bank.
The country, he said, neither wants to grant citizenship to Palestinians, nor continue facing international accusations that it is denying them democratic rights. "The settlement enterprise is doomed," he added. "I don't see Israel becoming either an official bi-national nor an official apartheid state."