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West Bank settlements report rapid growth in 2019

Increase expected to accelerate as Israeli leaders talk of partial annexation of the territory and a supportive Trump administration prepares to unveil peace plan

A view of the Israeli West Bank settlement of Ariel, January 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
A view of the Israeli West Bank settlement of Ariel, January 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The population of Israeli settlements in the West Bank surged by more than 3% in 2019, well above the growth rate of Israel’s overall population, a settler group said Tuesday. It predicted even higher growth this year thanks to a nascent building boom made possible by friendly policies of the Trump administration.

The data, released ahead of US President Donald Trump’s long-awaited peace plan, indicate that evacuating settlements is no longer a viable option for international peacemakers, said Baruch Gordon, director of West Bank Jewish Population Stats.

“We’re here and we’re not going anywhere,” he said.

His group, using official Interior Ministry data, said the population of West Bank settlements rose to 463,353 people as of January 1, up 3.1% from 449,508 a year earlier. In comparison, Israel’s overall population rose 1.9% in 2019 to 9,136,000 people, according to official data.

The figures do not include an estimated 300,000 Jewish Israelis living in East Jerusalem, which Israel considers part of Israel but which much of the international community views as part of the West Bank.

A view overlooks the West Bank settlement of Ari’el, January 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The Palestinians seek the West Bank and East Jerusalem as parts of an independent Palestinian state.

“All settlements are illegal and the settler presence on Palestinian land is illegal,” said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “This is a result of Israeli government policies.”

Israel annexed East Jerusalem and considers the entire city to be its capital. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated that he will seek to annex large chunks of the West Bank after Trump’s peace plan is released later Tuesday.

Most of the international community considers both territories to be occupied and settlements illegal. But the Trump administration, in a break from its predecessors and much of the rest of the world, has taken a much friendlier approach and in November declared it does not consider settlements illegal.

One of the architects of the peace plan, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, is a former president of Bet El Institutions, which sponsored Tuesday’s report. US support for the settlements in the peace plan could give Israel the diplomatic cover it needs to proceed with annexation plans.

A construction site at Shvut Rachel in the West Bank on May 1, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

According to Tuesday’s report, the growth rate of the settlement population last year actually dipped slightly from the 3.3% figure posted in 2018. But it still remained well ahead of the general population. The growth is driven in part by the relatively affordable housing prices found in the settlements, as well as the higher birthrate among their many religious families. The two largest settlements, Modiin Illit and Beitar Illit, are ultra-Orthodox cities that account for almost a quarter of all Israelis living in the West Bank and have median ages of 11.4 and 12.8, respectively.

After a slowdown in settlement activity during the final years of the anti-settlement Obama administration, Israel has stepped up its plans for construction since Trump took office. Both settlers and their critics call this the “Trump effect,” and predict a jump in construction in the coming years.

According to the anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now, Israel in 2019 pushed forward plans to build 9,413 settlement homes, roughly the same levels as 2017 and 2018. The figures are more than triple the level of settlement planning during the final two years of the Obama administration.

It generally takes several years for settlement construction to go through the planning process and win the necessary bureaucratic approvals. That means that actual construction should begin to take off this year, according to Peace Now.

“We haven’t really seen that yet,” said Brian Reeves, a spokesman for Peace Now. “2020 will see a spike in construction starts.”

“The numbers are exploding right now,” added Gordon. “That will be apparent in next year’s report and the year after that.”

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