Israel Criticizes U.S. Report on Vacancies at Settlements

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected a U.S. study that found that a quarter of the homes in West Bank Jewish settlements were vacant.

“I can’t give you precise figures,” Netanyahu told reporters Tuesday during a tour of settlements in the West Bank. But he called the report “false by an order of magnitude.”

“It’s a fraction of that, a very small fraction.”

U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross presented the survey to Israeli leaders last week during his shuttle mission to the region, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, which published data from the survey.

The report was apparently intended to refute Israel’s argument that it needs to expand Jewish settlements.

According to the report, 26 percent of the houses in West Bank Jewish settlements, and 56 percent in the Gaza Strip, are unoccupied.

The report said some 2,000 houses in Ariel and some 1,000 in Shilo, both in the West Bank, are vacant. More than 1,000 houses in Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip are uninhabited.

Settlement leaders refuted the figures, saying they were totally inaccurate.

Pinchas Wallerstein, the head of the council of Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, said there are no empty houses in settlements close to the center of the country.

In Ariel there are only about 2,000 houses altogether, making it impossible for the U.S. figures to be correct, he said.

U.S. sources confirmed the Ha’aretz report that the study was completed in February, and was the continuation of a survey begun last August. The statistics were gathered through a number of means, including statellite photos, Ha’aretz reported.

Ross raised the issue of empty houses when he met last week with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials at the home of the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk.

The meeting was aimed at finding a way to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, stalled since mid-March, when Israel broke ground for Jewish housing in southeastern Jerusalem.

According to sources quoted by Ha’aretz, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, who participated in the meeting, defended Israel’s decision to continue building in Jewish settlements, citing natural growth.

American officials rejected this argument, pointing to the findings of the study.

“There is no need to expand settlements” one senior American official was quoted as saying. “The whole idea of expanding the settlements is just a ploy to please the prime minister’s coalition partners.”

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