The state budget passed in the early hours of Wednesday morning will invest several billion shekels in West Bank settlements and transportation infrastructure, further entrenching Israel’s presence in the disputed territory.
The large majority of that sum will go to paving new roads and upgrading existing ones, including highways to bypass Palestinian population centers, as part of commitments made by coalition party Religious Zionism to its settler electorate.
But hundreds of millions of shekels will also be directed toward numerous other projects in the settlements, including earmarks for illegal settlements which have never received government authorization.
According to agreements reached between Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Transportation Minister Miri Regev, some NIS 3.5 billion ($941 million) in the state budget will be invested in upgrading and paving new roads in the West Bank over the next two years.
Of this, NIS 2 billion ($538 million) will go to upgrading Route 60, a major north-south artery that runs the entire length of the West Bank.
Another NIS 500 million ($134 million) will go toward expanding a road between the Ariel settlement and Tapuach Junction in the northern West Bank; NIS 366 million ($98 million) will go to upgrading the access road to the Beit El Regional Council area; NIS 300 million ($81 million) will pay for a new road between the Migron settlement and Qalandia north of Jerusalem; NIS 200 million ($54 million) for a road circumventing the Palestinian village of Al-Funduq in the northern West Bank west of Nablus; and NIS 150 million ($40 million) for a road in the Alfei Menashe settlement. Hundreds of millions more were allocated for roads in and around East Jerusalem.
The investment comprises 25 percent of the Transportation Ministry’s budget for road infrastructure in the entire country, though Israel’s population in the settlements comprises just 5% of Israel’s nearly 10 million citizens.
Settlement municipalities, activists and pro-settlements political parties have long complained of dangerous roads and poor transportation infrastructure leading to heavy traffic in the West Bank and a high rate of crashes.
Concerns have also been frequently raised over roads going directly through Palestinian towns and villages which fuel friction. Attacks on Israeli cars traversing through towns are not uncommon and can spark retaliatory attacks by vigilante settlers, as was seen earlier this year in Huwara.
The massive investment in West Bank transportation infrastructure represents the fulfillment of key pledges by the Religious Zionism party to its electorate in the settlements to upgrade the roads in the territory. Left-wing parties and organizations have on the other hand denounced the use of these funds for entrenching Israel’s presence in the West Bank while failing to advance a two-state solution.
Alongside the transportation funds, NIS 450 million ($121 million) has been allocated for the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee designated for development funds for local municipal authorities in the Negev, Galilee and wildcat outposts euphemistically termed “young settlements.”
The illegal West Bank outposts operate without formal government approval, although many did receive some form of official assistance when being established.
It is unclear what portion of those funds will be directed to the “young settlements” but Smotrich and his party have made upgrading infrastructure there a priority.
Another NIS 399 million ($107 million) will be directed to the Settlements Division of the World Zionist Congress through the Settlements and National Missions Ministry headed by Religious Zionism MK Orit Strock.
The Settlements Division is a semi-government agency whose task is to fund and develop rural Jewish communities both within the Green Line and in West Bank settlements.
However, its budgetary allocations are not transparent. Although it has previously claimed that it divides its budget equally between the Galilee, Negev and West Bank settlements, these claims have related to the agency’s base budget and not its total expenditure figures, which has often been far higher.
In 2014, the Molad organization found that out of the Settlement Division’s total annual spending for that year, fully 75 percent went toward West Bank settlements.
The Settlements Division has provided loans to settlers to set up illegal settlement outposts such as in Amona, and allocated land for settlements which was actually private Palestinian land such as in Mitzpe Kramim and the Givat Ulpana neighborhood in Beit El.
Strock’s ministry itself will receive NIS 268 million ($72 million) in funding, although where and how that money will be spent is not yet clear. Another NIS 74 million ($20 million) allocated to the ministry is intended to help settlement municipal authorities monitor illegal Palestinian construction in the territory.
According to Peace Now, another NIS 195 million ($52 million) has been allocated to the Civil Administration agency within the Defense Ministry for the development of West Bank infrastructure.
The Civil Administration was brought under Smotrich’s control in February when he became a minister in the defense ministry and it is likely that the funds will be used for the development and expansion of the settlements and their infrastructure.
“All Israeli governments prioritize the West Bank settlements in the budget, but this government has gone even further and has taken money from core funds and given it to a small group living in the West Bank which in a political agreement with the Palestinians Israel will leave,” said Yoni Mizrachi, a researcher with Peace Now following passage of the state budget.
“We are seeing an effort here to deepen Israel’s presence in the West Bank,” he added.
Smotrich lauded the budget formulated and advanced by his ministry as “excellent”, but notably omitted any reference to the funds going towards the settlements.
“It [the budget] is geared toward growth, infrastructure, encouraging capital investments in high-tech, in agriculture, [makes] a huge investment in the health care system that has been neglected for years, a huge investment in governance and the security system, a huge investment in higher education and the education system at all levels,” wrote the finance minister on his Facebook page.