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Most new settler homes being built in 'isolated' West Bank settlements: monitor

The United Nations reported in June that Israel had announced a substantial increase in settlements in the past three months despite a UN resolution demanding a halt to the Jewish outposts
ABBAS MOMANI (AFP/File)
Israel pushed through tenders for 6,742 new West Bank settlement homes in 2017, watchdog says

Construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank rose significantly last year with the majority of housing units being built in isolated settlements far beyond the so-called “Green Line”, according to a report published Monday by settlement watchdog Peace Now.

Data published by Peace Now shows that Israel began construction on 2,783 new housing units in 2017, a figure approximately 17 percent higher than the yearly average rate since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assumed office in 2009 but lower than the 2016 figure.

The monitor said that 78% of the new housing units in 2017 were being built in isolated settlements beyond the Green Line, which is internationally accepted as a representation of the approximate division of Israeli and Palestinian territory in a two-state solution. Those housing units would likely therefore be evacuated if a Palestinian state is established, as opposed to the large Israeli settlement blocs likely to be annexed to Israel in the event a two-state solution is reached.

Construction in outlying settlements was up 8% from 2016, the report said. Another 243 units, or 8% of total settlement construction in 2017, were in wildcat outposts not authorized by Israel, the watchdog said.

“If in the past, the government had focused on construction and housing within the blocs, it appears that the government is openly working toward a reality of annexation,” said Shabtay Bendet, the director of Peace Now’s settlement watch team.

Jaafar ASHTIYEH (AFP)

The monitor said that while the 2,783 actual construction starts marked a drop since 2016, (when 3,027 construction starts were recorded), the number of tenders advanced through various stages of planning spiked from 2,629 in 2016 to 6,742 in 2017 -- nearly half of which had received final government approval.

The report noted that the construction spike in 2016 was a result of a significant number of tenders pushed through in 2013 and 2014 as “compensation” to Netanyahu’s right-wing voter-base for his release of Palestinian prisoners during failed peace negotiations under the Obama administration, which took time to be actualized on the ground.

But the fast-tracking and spike in government approval of tenders in 2017 coincided with US President Donald Trump taking office last year with an administration seen as softer of settlements than previous administrations have been, the report noted.

“The steady pace of construction and building deep in the West Bank attest to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s steadfast abetting of the settlement enterprise,” the report said. “It is also apparent that the new US presidency in 2017 had no marginal deterrent effect on these Israeli unilateral moves.”

Peace Now’s figures differ significantly from those listed by Israel’s Central Bureau for Statistics, which counted 1,759 construction starts in 2017. The left-wing settlement monitor said in its report that the Israeli statistics bureau relies on numbers provided to it by the council chairmen of various West Bank settlements “who do not include illegal building in their reports.”

AHMAD GHARABLI (AFP/File)

In February, one settler leader said Monday that the Trump administration, backed by a team of pro-settler Middle East advisers, had led to a population boom in West Bank settlements in 2017.

Ya’akov Katz, founder of the"West Bank Jewish Population Stats” report sponsored by prominent settler institution "Bet El" which Trump’s closest Middle East advisers have been tied to, said that the settler population grew at nearly twice the rate of Israel's overall population last year.

According to Katz's figures, which he says are based on official data from Israel's Ministry of Interior not yet available to the public, the West Bank settler population reached 435,159 at the end of 2017, up 3.4% from 420,899 the previous year.

By comparison, the total population of Israel grew by 1.8% in 2017, to 8.743 million, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

Katz attributed the population surge to the support of Trump's administration and estimated that by the end of his tenure the West Bank settler population could reach 500,000.

Israeli settlements are considered illegal under international law and seen as major obstacles to peace as they are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.

Israel however differentiates between settlements it has approved and those it has not.

Those without approval are referred to as outposts and are typically populated by hardline religious nationalists who see the entire West Bank as part of Israel.

Talks to restart peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have been rocky in the last year since Trump took office, despite his eagerness to reach the “ultimate deal.”

On December 6, the President’s announcement to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem while declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital unleashed fury and backlash from Arab nations and the international community.

Since the declaration, Palestinians have boycotted meeting with any American officials to engage in peace talks, believing that the United States can no longer serve as an impartial negotiating partner.

In a fiery speech earlier this month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas lambasted Trump’s pro-settlement ambassador to Israel David Friedman a “settler” and “son of a dog.”

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