Settler leaders, bereaved families end protest for upping West Bank security
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Settler leaders, bereaved families end protest for upping West Bank security

Despite signing agreement with virtually same terms PM had promised Yesha Council last month, Samaria Council chairman touts 5-day hunger strike as a success

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Settler leaders agree to a deal with the government to end their protest outside the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on November 10, 2017. From left to right: David Bitan, Beit Aryeh Mayor Avi Naim, MK Oren Hazan, Shomron Regional Council head Yossi Dagan, Itzhak Abutbul, Hadas Mizrahi, Kiryat Arba-Hebron Mayor Melachi Levinger. (Courtesy: Samaria Regional Council)
Settler leaders agree to a deal with the government to end their protest outside the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on November 10, 2017. From left to right: David Bitan, Beit Aryeh Mayor Avi Naim, MK Oren Hazan, Shomron Regional Council head Yossi Dagan, Itzhak Abutbul, Hadas Mizrahi, Kiryat Arba-Hebron Mayor Melachi Levinger. (Courtesy: Samaria Regional Council)

A group of settler leaders and representatives of bereaved families ended their hunger strike Friday after reaching a deal with the government to improve the West Bank’s security infrastructure.

While Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan, who spearheaded the protest, touted the deal as a major achievement, the agreement signed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and delivered by coalition chair David Bitan (Likud) to the protesters outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem consisted of virtually the exact same conditions that Netanyahu had pledged to leaders of the Yesha settlement umbrella council last month.

In a letter to Bitan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed the agreement in writing, an apparent concession to the protesters, though not the full-fledged cabinet decision approving the new funds that the protest leaders, led by Dagan, had demanded.

Dagan called it a historic day. “After almost three weeks of protesting outside the Prime Minister’s Residence and six days of hunger strike, we have reached an agreement with the government,” he said. “It is an agreement which guarantees funding for bypass roads that will save lives and for increased security measures on the road.”

The new document puts in writing the promise of an NIS 800 million ($228 million) security package as part of the 2018 budget for West Bank roads and infrastructure development.

The agreement ends a tense stalemate. When the promise was initially made three weeks ago, Dagan and a few fellow settlement mayors refused to end their protest until the funds had actually been transferred. Then, on Monday, Netanyahu appeared to backtrack, telling the hunger-striking settlers that he had earmarked just 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, but that the remaining NIS 600 million for additional bypass routes and lighting would only be added to the 2019 budget.

Netanyahu stressed that he needed to “lay the groundwork” with the international community before it could accept a massive investment in West Bank infrastructure.

Settler leaders protest outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, demanding security improvements to West Bank roads on October 24, 2017. (Courtesy: Miri Tzachi)

In the new agreement, the prime minister appears to have returned to his original promise. The written deal pledges that NIS 200 million will be transferred immediately for the Qalandiya and Beit Aryeh bypass roads, and an additional NIS 600 million will be transferred in January 2018 for the other security improvements.

Besides new roads, the package is to include 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.

Settler leaders and bereaved families’ representatives berate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud faction meeting on November 6, 2017. (Courtesy: Roy Hadi)

Former Yesha Council chairman Avi Roeh, who had been in the meeting a month ago when Netanyahu had made his original pledge, was not impressed by Dagan’s claims of victory on Friday. “It seems to be the same agreement we had received. I don’t see any difference,” he said, laughing.

Initially Dagan had threatened that the protest would not end until a cabinet decision was made on the financing. On Friday, he accepted the written pledge as tantamount to such a decision.

Hadas Mizrachi, whose husband Baruch was gunned down in a terror attack near Hebron while en route to a family Passover Seder in April 2014, spoke of her satisfaction at the deal.

“I’m happy we had the chance to do something for the people of Israel,” she said. “To prevent tragic events like those that happened to me and my family. This is a victory for the spirit and it is a gift for the settlements that I love so much and in which I was raised.”

The showdown with the prime minister highlighted differences among settlement leaders, especially between Yesha Council leaders who sought to obtain the funds through quiet talks with Netanyahu and a group, led in this instance by Dagan, who refused to take Netanyahu at his word and argued that the necessary funds could only be obtained by public pressure.

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