Some 70 percent of settlement construction in the West Bank last year took place outside the so-called settlement blocs, a settlement watchdog group claimed in a report released Sunday.
According to Peace Now, more than 25 percent of new construction in 2016 also took place to the east of the security barrier, which runs primarily along the pre-1967 armistice lines but also juts into the West Bank to include a number of settlements.
However, the report by Peace Now relies on the definition of the blocs as outlined on the 2003 Geneva Initiative, which was rejected by the government of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon. The watchdog therefore considered various large settlements (Efrat, Givat Ze’ev and Ariel) which are situated west of the security barrier to be located to its east, and thus outside of the accepted boundaries, since this would have been the case were the barrier built in accordance with the Geneva Initiative.
Israel has vowed to retain the settlement blocs in any future peace deal, with mutually agreed land swaps with the Palestinians.
The report also claimed that 10 percent of construction in 2016 was carried out illegally, half of it in unauthorized settlement outposts.
According to the report, the largest number of new homes were built in Efrat (221), Modi’in Illit (190), Beitar Illit (140), Alei Zahav (126), Givat Ze’ev (114) and Ma’ale Adumim (97).
The report also said that new settlement construction was up 34 percent in 2016 over the year before, totaling 1,814 new homes.
Efrat, Givat Ze’ev, and Alei Zahav were considered isolated settlements by the report, though only the latter settlement would likely be viewed that way by the Israeli government.
In an interview with Army Radio on Sunday, Peace Now director-general Avi Buskila said the new report showed Israel’s “double standard.”
“On the one hand the [state] says we are partners with the Americans and have a dialogue with them, but on the other hand [Israel] approves, under the table, increased construction,” he said.
Shilo Adler, who heads the Yesha Council umbrella settlement group, told Army Radio that the Peace Now report was misleading, noting that Israel considers settlements such as Efrat to be part of the major blocs.
Adler also said that while the data in the report showed that there is no settlement freeze, there is a “planning freeze.” He said that many of the homes currently being built were first approved some two decades ago.
He also slammed the timing of the release of the report, which he noted came a day before US President Donald Trump’s visit to Israel.
On Sunday, a senior White House official told the Haaretz daily that Trump will urge Netanyahu to restrict settlement building in the West Bank as part of confidence-building measures in order to lay the groundwork to restart the peace process during his visit to the region this week.
“The president has made a general statement regarding his position and he hopes the Israeli government will take it into consideration,” the White House official told Haaretz in a report published Sunday.
Settlements have long been one of the thorniest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the Palestinians and much of the international community saying that their expansion threatens the territorial continuity of a future Palestinian state.
Despite Trump’s stated opposition to new settlement construction, Israel has approved some 5,500 new homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since the US president was inaugurated in January; their announcement has been met with relatively little pushback from the White House.