Bereaved families berate PM as NIS 200m earmarked for settler bypass roads

Hunger-strikers put little stock in Netanyahu pledge of deal with Treasury to fund West Bank routes around Palestinian towns, a major security demand

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Adva Biton, mother of Adele Biton, who was injured at a terror attack and died later from her wounds, reacts during a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset on November 6, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Adva Biton, mother of Adele Biton, who was injured at a terror attack and died later from her wounds, reacts during a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset on November 6, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A group of bereaved relatives of Israelis killed in terror attacks on West Bank roads berated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday over a lack of funds for security infrastructure, even as he announced a deal to earmark hundreds of millions of shekels for new bypass roads around Palestinian towns.

Representatives of the bereaved families, along with West Bank council chairmen, began a hunger-strike on Sunday, pushing for the prime minister to make good on his promise to transfer nearly NIS 1 billion for a settlement security package.

Led by Samaria Regional Council Chairman Yossi Dagan, the group launched a tent-protest outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, refusing to abandon the sidewalk outside Balfour street until the money Netanyahu had pledged settlers last month is transferred to relevant authorities.

In October, Netanyahu promised that an NIS 800 million ($228 million) security package would be part of the 2018 budget.

On Monday, Netanyahu told the hunger-striking settlers that he had earmarked NIS 200 million to complete the bypass roads around Qalandiya and near Beit Aryeh in the central West Bank, following a meeting with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.

The remaining NIS 600 million for additional bypass routes and lighting would only be added to the 2019 budget, the prime minister said.

Netanyahu stressed that he needed to “lay the groundwork” for acceptance by the international community for such a move before taking action.

“For a year we haven’t had any condemnation,” said Netanyahu of the global response to Israeli construction in the West Bank. “This is not a coincidence. This is a result of listening to international opinion.”

US President Donald Trump’s administration has leveled only muted criticism at Israel’s West Bank construction, but before he took office in January, the UN Security Council passed a sweeping condemnation of settlement activity after the US declined to wield its veto.

Netanyahu added that the government has a “clear commitment” to resolve the issue of security on West Bank roads, and asserted that “we aren’t talking, we’re doing.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with MK David Bitan during a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset on November 6, 2017. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

The bereaved families and settler leaders are demanding a security package that would include bypass roads around Palestinian towns, additional cellphone towers to improve reception in rural areas, more streetlights on poorly lit roads, and the bolstering of armored buses that travel through the West Bank.

Settlers say the roads, which would circumvent Palestinian population centers, are integral for their safety, citing terror attacks that have taken place on roads that run through Palestinian towns, including rock-throwings, firebomb attacks and shootings.

But opponents of the new roads say they are discriminatory, that bypass roads encourage the establishment of illegal outposts and are sometimes paved on private Palestinian land.

Unsatisfied with an additional pledge from Netanyahu at the Likud faction meeting, bereaved families’ representatives began to shout him down before he could finish his statement.

Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan and Beit Aryeh Local Council chairman Avi Naim point to a West Bank bypass road that remains unfinished, years after its construction began. (Courtesy: Roy Hadi)

Hadas Mizrahi, whose husband was killed in a shooting attack on a road near Hebron in 2014, recounted that she was forced to wait exposed for 20 minutes for security forces to show up after the incident.

Also directly addressing the prime minister was Adva Bitton, whose daughter Adele was badly injured and later died of her injures after their car was stoned on a West Bank road and consequently crashed.

In a statement following the heated faction meeting, Dagan said that the group would be continuing in its hunger strike despite the assurance from Netanyahu that NIS 200 million had been earmarked. “We expect a real cabinet decision backed by a clause in the annual budget and until it is finalized, we will continue the hunger strike on the sidewalk opposite the Prime Minister’s Residence.”

Also participating the hunger strike is Likud MK Oren Hazan, who announced that he was joining the bereaved families 24 hours after they launched the strike.

Likud MK Oren Hazan (C) announces on November 5, 2017 that he will be joining a hunger strike led by settler leaders demanding the prime minister transfer funds for security improvements in the West Bank. (Screen capture/Samaria Regional Council)

Speaking with The Times of Israel, Beit Aryeh mayor Avi Naim explained that the prime minister’s assurance that he had earmarked the money was not the same as a cabinet decision that would signify that the money could be transferred and that the roads built.

“Netanyahu’s statement today also showed that the pledge of NIS 800 million for the calendar year of 2018 that the Yesha (settlement umbrella) Council had boasted having received from the prime minister was total nonsense,” Naim added, saying that now Netanyahu was only talking about earmarking NIS 200 million for the coming year.

Refuting Naim’s account, Yesha spokesman Yigal Dilmoni said that his organization had received an assurance from the prime minister that the NIS 800 million would be transferred over a span of three years, which is what Netanyahu had again affirmed on Sunday.

Dilmoni clarified though that Yesha still expected a cabinet decision before the end of 2017 in which the government would commit to transferring the funds.

However, Naim’s statement mocking Yesha was still emblematic of Dagan’s campaign’s divisiveness.

While the Samaria Regional Council chairman has clout in the Likud Central Committee, which has led to visits in the protest-tent by over a dozen lawmakers from the Likud, Jewish Home and Kulanu parties, Dagan does not appear to have the backing of most settler leaders. Of the 24 local and regional council chairman in the West Bank, only two have joined Dagan outside Netanyahu’s residence.

Last week, former chairman of the Yesha settlement umbrella council Avi Roeh told The Times of Israel that his organization was not taking part in the protests, saying he believed Netanyahu would honor his pledge.

Marissa Newman contributed to this report

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