There were 2,630 housing construction starts in West Bank settlements in 2016, the Central Bureau of Statistics said in a report Wednesday, in what marks a nearly 40 percent increase over 2015.
The publication of the statistics came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been seeking to reach an agreement with the US on new settlement construction.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu said there has been “significant progress” in talks on the issue with the US.
“The talks have not been completed, but there is progress and we will hear about it when we reach Israel,” he told reporters in China, where he was on a state visit, shortly before his plane took off for Israel.
After US President Donald Trump told Netanyahu that “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit” during a February meeting of the two leaders at the White House, the prime minister said he was working with the US administration to “establish a mechanism” to coordinate new settlement construction.
However, despite reportedly discussing the issue at length with Trump’s special envoy for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt during his visit to Israel last week, an agreement has yet to be reached.
Netanyahu said on Tuesday that “there are different viewpoints,” dispatched his chief of staff Yoav Horowitz to the US on Sunday in order to continue discussions on the issue with Greenblatt alongside Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer.
Netanyahu also said on Tuesday he would not “negotiate” on halting construction of new homes in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as part of a deal with the Trump administration.
The settlement watchdog group Peace Now said that, based on the Central Bureau of Statistics report, the number of West Bank housing starts in 2016 was the second highest in the last 15 years, which the group said shows Israel is not genuinely interested in reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians.
“The sharp increase in settlement construction sends a clear message to the Palestinians and to the international community that Israel is not interested in a two-state solution,” Peace Now said in a statement Wednesday
“By speeding up settlement construction, Netanyahu is leading Israel towards becoming an apartheid state,” the group added.
אל מול אזהרות ראש המוסד לשעבר, דו"ח הלמ"ס מוכיח שנתניהו ממשיך לרצות מיעוט קיצוני ולהוביל את ישראל לחיסול פתרון 2 המדינות והרס החזון הציוני pic.twitter.com/cXGaxgKjUg
— שלום עכשיו (@PeaceNowIL) March 22, 2017
According to Peace Now, settlement housing starts have averaged 1,790 a year since 2001 and the only year with a higher number of building starts than 2016 was 2013, when work began on 2,874 homes.
The group also said that since Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, construction begun on 14,017 new houses in the West Bank.
The CBS statistics do not include housing starts in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
Since Trump’s inauguration, Israel has approved the construction of some 6,000 news homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which unlike during the Obama administration were met with little fanfare from the White House, although no new building plans have been announced since Trump’s comments in February.