West Bank settlement construction and permit approvals rose during the first year of the Trump presidency, with the lion’s share of new housing starts in isolated Israeli communities well beyond the Green Line, according to a report published Sunday by a left-wing group.
The report by the Peace Now settlement monitoring group found that Israel began construction of 2,783 settlement homes in 2017. That was about 17 percent higher than the annual average since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office in 2009.
It said that 78 percent of the new homes — 2,168 housing units — were in outlying settlements that would likely have to be evacuated if a Palestinian state is established, 8% higher than the year before.
And 234 units, or 8% of the total, were in tiny illegal outposts that are not even authorized by Israel, it said.
The data was published in Peace Now’s annual report, which compared aerial photos it took of Israeli settlements at the end of 2017 to those from previous years.
Isolated settlements are considered those east of the proposed border of the Geneva Initiative, a peace plan that was drafted by Israeli and Palestinian leaders in 2003 that many advocates of a two-state solution believe roughly represents what a final agreement between the parties would look like.
The plan includes land swaps that would bring some large settlement blocs adjacent to Israeli territory into Israel.
Peace Now said 36% of Israeli construction starts in the West Bank from 2017 took place on land east of Israel’s security barrier, a 9% increase from the year prior.
The security barrier was constructed at the height of the second intifada in the early 2000s to prevent the infiltration of suicide bombers into Israel. While it has yet to be finished completely, the west side of the completed barrier would include settlements such as Ariel and Kedumim, which jut some 20 kilometers into the northern West Bank.
While the group pointed out that the 2,783 construction starts from 2017 were roughly 17% more than the annual average since 2009, the figure also marked a decline from 2016, when 3,027 construction starts were recorded.
Peace Now’s Hagit Ofran explained that in addition to bureaucratic constraints, the spike in 2016 was the result of the substantial amount of tenders that were approved for construction in 2013 and 2014 by Netanyahu’s government during the peace talks being led by then US secretary of state John Kerry.
“The approvals were seen as compensation to the right for Netanyahu’s release of prisoners during the negotiations,” Ofran said. She explained that it took a couple of years for these authorizations to be actualized on the ground.
While the construction starts may have decreased slightly over the past year, the amount of housing units that were advanced through various planning stages climbed from 2,629 to 6,742 housing units — nearly half of which received final planning approval by the government.
Moreover, over 65% of those 6,742 settlement homes are slated to sit east of the proposed Geneva Initiative border, the report said.
The rise has coincided with US President Donald Trump taking office last year.
While a string of Republican and Democratic presidents have opposed settlement construction, Trump has taken a softer line. He has asked Israel to show restraint at times, but avoided the strong condemnations voiced by his predecessors. His Mideast peace team, led by his son in law Jared Kushner, is dominated by people with ties to the settlement movement.
Netanyahu has been a strong supporter of the settlements throughout his career, and his coalition is dominated by religious and nationalist hardliners aligned with the settlement movement and who oppose Palestinian independence. Facing a growing list of corruption investigations, Netanyahu has also appealed to his hard-line base.
“The steady pace of construction and building deep in the West Bank attest to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s steadfast abetting of the settlement enterprise,” the report said. “It is also apparent that the new US presidency in 2017 had no marginal deterrent effect on these Israeli unilateral moves.”
Peace now said its numbers were markedly different from from the Central Bureau for Statistics’ figures which counted 1,759 construction starts in 2017 (and 1,826 in 2016) because they rely on data given to them by West Bank council chairmen “who do not include illegal building in their reports.”
“2017 will be remembered as a year when the Israeli government lost its shame,” said Shabtay Bendet, the director of Peace Now’s settlement watch team.
“If in the past, the government had focused on construction and housing within the blocs, it appears that the government is openly working toward a reality of annexation,” adding that the planning approvals and construction starts in the West Bank will lead to a one-state disaster.
The Yesha settlement umbrella council did not respond to The Times of Israel’s request for comment; but in the past, the group has called Peace Now’s figures “misleading,” arguing that the left-wing NGO strives to vilify those Israeli citizens who choose to live across the Green Line.
Last month, a settler leader, using official government data, said the West Bank settler population grew 3.4 percent last year, nearly double the growth rate of Israel’s overall population, to more than 435,000 people.
For the Palestinians, the Peace Now data was another cause for mistrust of the US administration just as the White House is trying to wrap up a Mideast peace initiative.
The Palestinians have severed most contacts with the White House since Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December. The Palestinians view the move as being unfairly biased toward Israel on the most sensitive issue in the conflict, and have already rejected the US peace plan before it has been made public.
Nabil Shaath, a top adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said the figures proved that Netanyahu is “not interested in peace” and is destroying hopes for a two-state solution.
“Netanyahu is continuing his settlement project, enjoying the fact that the U.S. is silent,” he said. “These numbers are very dangerous. We condemn it, and will continue working politically to stop it.”
Both Netanyahu’s office and the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
AP contributed to this report