Ministers earmark $15 million to resume construction of new settlement

Interior minister reaches agreement with treasury to release agreed-upon sum of for building of Amichai, to house Amona evacuees

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

Construction workers begin work on the new settlement, Amichai, meant to resettle the evacuees of Amona, June 20, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Construction workers begin work on the new settlement, Amichai, meant to resettle the evacuees of Amona, June 20, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After a month-long building freeze due to budgetary disputes, the cabinet approved a plan on Sunday that will allow for construction to resume on a new settlement for evacuees of the illegal Amona outpost.

The Finance Ministry will transfer NIS 55 million ($15.3 million) to the Interior Ministry for the purpose of infrastructure work in Amichai, adjacent to Shiloh in the northern West Bank.

In late July, work on Israel’s first new government-planned settlement in a quarter of a century was halted, just a month after it began, due to lack of funds. The Binyamin Regional Council had been bankrolling the building of the new settlement under the assumption that it would be compensated by the state, but then said it was forced to stall the project because the government had not contributed.

With no ministry willing to take control of the project, Housing Minister Yoav Galant agreed to do so in early August on condition that the originally agreed-upon budget be doubled to NIS 120 million ($33.5 million). The Finance Ministry refused the request, and Galant has since been accused by some settler leaders –including Avichai Boaron, a representative of the Amona evacuees — of making the offer in order to play to his right-wing supporters, all while knowing that the Finance Ministry would never approve the doubling of Amichai’s budget.

A month later, Aryeh Deri’s Interior Ministry reached an agreement with the treasury to transfer the originally planned amount of some NIS 60 million ($16.8 million), which will be funneled to the Binyamin Regional Council in order to resume construction.

Aryeh Deri seen leaving his home in Jerusalem on the way to questioning at the Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit, June 5, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An additional NIS 5 million ($1.4 million) will go to the Defense Ministry to fund the installation of mobile homes on a hilltop adjacent to Shiloh until the construction of permanent homes is completed.

While the government approved the building of the new settlement, the Civil Administration — the Defense Ministry body that authorizes West Bank construction — has yet to authorize Amichai’s building plan of 120 housing units. Until then, the Amona evacuees are prevented from settling in temporary housing on the hilltop adjacent to Shiloh.

During Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Deri for his work in reaching a solution to unfreeze the budget for Amichai. “I want to thank you… for your ministry’s [help] in solving the budgetary distribution problem, and I want to congratulate you,” Netanyahu said.

Boaron “cautiously welcomed” the government decision.

“We congratulate the prime minister and all members of his office on advancing the decision. The prime minister has proven that he is committed to the people of Amona, but this commitment will not be fully realized until we move to the new settlement,” he said in a statement.

The Peace Now settlement watchdog panned the cabinet’s decision. “There is no limit to the groveling of the Israeli government,” the NGO said in a statement Sunday. The group added that “42 families, which the court ruled had stolen private land, are extorting the government,” while funding for educational programs and pensions for the disabled is neglected.

Amona was evacuated in February after the High Court of Justice ruled that it had been built on private Palestinian land. The 42 families that used to live there have since been residing in dormitory-style housing in the nearby Ofra settlement, waiting for the completion of Amichai.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 3, 2017. (AFP Photo/Pool/Abir Sultan)

Last week, a group of Palestinian landowners and village heads, and Israeli rights NGOs, filed an objection to the Civil Administration in a bid to prevent its approval of the Amichai building plan. In their petition, they argued that the new settlement will harm the lives of Palestinians living and working nearby by preventing them from accessing their land.

Even if the petition is not fully accepted, it could delay the new settlement for months until the Civil Administration, which authorizes Israeli construction in the West Bank, responds to the concerns of the petitioners and possibly recommends changes to the building plan.

Netanyahu’s right-wing government has worked to speed up the establishment of the new settlement — breaking ground for roads and infrastructure before final permits were issued by the Civil Administration.

Speaking with The Times of Israel hours after the objection was filed, Boaron said he “still hopes to be able to move [to Amichai] in two to three months.”

Most Popular
read more: