Settlement construction dips in 2019 but building approvals soar — watchdog

11 outposts established; majority of homes go up in national religious communities far beyond Green Line

In this February 18, 2020, photo, a view of the West Bank settlement of Ma'ale Efraim on the hills of the Jordan Valley. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
In this February 18, 2020, photo, a view of the West Bank settlement of Ma'ale Efraim on the hills of the Jordan Valley. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

Construction starts in Israeli settlements dipped slightly in 2019 while the number of homes advanced through initial planning stages soared, according to a report released by a government watchdog on Wednesday.

Israel began construction on 1,917 new homes in the West Bank last year, according to Housing Ministry figures compiled by the Peace Now organization. That marked a slight drop from 2,100 construction starts in 2018.

Overall, Israel has begun construction on an average of 2,267 homes per year since US President Donald Trump took office in 2017, compared to an annual average of 1,807 units during the Obama administration.

The 2019 construction could house an additional 9,000 people per year in settlements, based on an estimate of four people per household.

The figures do not include East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in a move not recognized by many countries around the world.

According to Defense Ministry figures, Israel last year advanced plans to build nearly 8,457 new homes in the West Bank, putting them on track to potentially be built in the coming years — up from 5,618 units advanced last year and 6,742 in 2017. Roughly one third of the homes that were advanced in preliminary stages in 2019 received final approval for construction.

Map of settlement building starts in 2019. (Peace Now)

By comparison, Israel advanced plans for a total of 4,611 new homes during the final two years of the Obama administration, when ties with the US were strained.

Nearly 60% of the 2019 building starts were in communities deep in the West Bank, east of the security barrier, according to Peace Now.

“In my opinion, they’re trying to take advantage of the window of opportunity that they have under the Trump administration, knowing that it might change in a few months,” said Peace Now’s Hagit Ofran. “There was no such supportive administration for the settlements previously, ever.”

In a break from the administrations of his Republican and Democratic predecessors, who regularly condemned any announcement of settlement construction or planning, Trump has taken a much softer line toward Israel’s expansion beyond the Green Line.

Surrounded by a group of advisers with close ties to the settlement movement, Trump’s administration declared last year that it did not consider the settlements to be illegal under international law. Then, in January, the US president unveiled a Mideast plan that envisions placing large parts of the West Bank, including all of the settlements, under permanent Israeli control.

Among noteworthy trends highlighted in Peace Now’s report were that nearly 40% of construction starts — 741 housing units — in 2019 were in four ultra-Orthodox settlements — Modi’in Illit, Beitar Illit, Givat Ze’ev’s Agan HaAyalot neighborhood, and Tel Zion in Kochav Yaakov. Ultra-Orthodox Israelis make up roughly one third of the over 460,000 settlers in the West Bank, and are the fastest growing group in Israel.

Illustrative: Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews attend the funeral of Rabbi Aryeh Finkel, head yeshiva of the Brachfeld branch of the Mir Yeshiva in Modiin Illit, on August 10, 2016. (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)

Most of the construction, about 1,065 housing units (56%), in 2019 was in ideological national religious settlements, which are often located deep in the West Bank, as opposed to so-called quality of life settlements, where some Israelis live to take advantage of cheaper housing prices.

In addition, last year saw the establishment of 11 illegal outposts. This is the same number that were established in 2018, but in the decade and a half before that, no more than five outposts were created in a single year.

While the international community considers all settlement activity illegal, Israel differentiates between legal settlement homes built and permitted by the Defense Ministry on land owned by the state, and illegal outposts built without necessary permits, often on private Palestinian land.

At least 10% (195 housing units) of the building starts in 2019 were located in outposts.

All 11 of the new wildcat communities were styled as farms. “The farms allow settlers to take over vast areas (pasture and agricultural cultivation) with only a small group of people—one family and several youngsters—who maintain the farm and take control of land,” Peace Now wrote in its report.

Nofei Prat South (hill 324), a new farm outpost established in 2019 east of Jerusalem. (Peace Now)

Building approvals have continued into the current calendar year, including a large batch days before this month’s election. All in all, plans for 7,582 settlement units have been advanced so far in 2020, including projects for 3,401 units in the controversial E1 area between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim, according to Defebnse Ministry figures. The projects would bisect the western West Bank, substantially curbing the possibility for development in the center of a future Palestinian state if one were to be created.

Oded Revivi, mayor of the settlement of Efrat and the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha settlement umbrella council, said it was “no secret” that the Trump administration has been more tolerant of construction.

Whether the thousands of units in the pipeline are built, he said, will depend on who leads Israel’s next government and who wins the US presidential election in November.

“If we still have the same players, Netanyahu and Trump, I predict the figures you will see in 2020, or more accurately 2021, will actually be higher than 2019,” he added.

Netanyahu, fighting for his political life, took a number of pro-settlement steps while campaigning for reelection early this year.

Immediately after Trump unveiled his Mideast plan, Netanyahu vowed to begin annexing the settlements. When the White House balked, saying it wanted the move to be coordinated with its officials, he pushed forward a flurry of new settlement plans as he tried to cater to his hard-line base. Those included the E1 projects as well as ones in the Givat Hamatos neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

The latter plan has been frozen due to pressure from the international community. Critics say building on the hill in southern Jerusalem will cut off of the Palestinian neighborhoods of Beit Safafa and Sharafat from the West Bank city of Bethlehem, in a manner that critics said placed another nail in the coffin of a two-state solution based roughly on the pre-1967 lines.

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