West Bank settler population surged during Trump era, report says

Government data shows number of Israelis living beyond Green Line grew by some 13% since the start of 2017, while Israel’s overall population grew by just 8%

The West Bank Jewish settlement of Ma'ale Efrayim in the Jordan Valley, June 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)
The West Bank Jewish settlement of Ma'ale Efrayim in the Jordan Valley, June 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

Israel’s West Bank settler population has grown at a far higher rate than the country as a whole over the last four years, a period that coincides with the Trump administration’s unprecedented acceptance of settlement activity, a pro-settler group said Wednesday.

The report by West Bank Jewish Population Stats shows the settler population growing by around 13% since the start of 2017 to reach 475,481. During the same period, Israel’s population grew by around 8% to reach nearly 9.3 million, according to the government.

The group’s report, which is based on official government data, does not include East Jerusalem, home to more than 200,000 Israelis, where Israel has extended sovereignty.

But Baruch Gordon, the director of West Bank Jewish Population Stats, downplayed the influence of US policy, saying the annual growth rate actually declined in recent years, even before the coronavirus pandemic. The West Bank settler population grew by 2.62% in 2020, according to his figures, compared to 1.7% in Israel as a whole. In 2016, the settler population grew 3.59%.

“I don’t think any American president can influence that much, because growth on the ground is [dependent on] internal Israeli government decisions on how much construction to do and not to do,” he said.

Roadworks expand a road to Israeli settlements inside the West Bank, near the city of Bethlehem, March 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, File)

Many settlers are religious Jews who tend to have larger families, driving population growth, and many Israelis are drawn to the settlements because they offer more affordable housing.

Gordon expects growth to continue even if US President Joe Biden pressures Israel to rein it in. “The facts on the ground are stronger than any American foreign policy,” he said.

Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, and the Palestinians want both as part of their future state. The Palestinians and much of the international community view the settlements as illegal and as an obstacle to creating a viable, contiguous Palestinian state.

Many settlers and their supporters view the West Bank as the biblical and historical heartland of the Jewish people and are opposed to any partition.

Former US president Donald Trump’s administration abandoned decades of US policy by accepting the settlements and released a Mideast peace plan in which Israel would have been able to keep all of them, including smaller settlements deep inside the territory. Last year, Mike Pompeo became the first US secretary of state to visit a settlement.

An Israeli air force Blackhawk helicopter carrying US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hovers over Sha’ar Binyamin industrial park near the Psagot settlement in the West Bank, north of Jerusalem, on November 19, 2020. (Ahmad GHARABLI/AFP)

The Palestinians angrily rejected the plan, and Biden is likely to abandon it. He is opposed to settlement expansion and has said he hopes to revive peace negotiations.

By not objecting to new settlement construction — as his predecessors from both parties had done — Trump encouraged their growth, potentially further complicating efforts to bring about a two-state solution.

Israeli authorities advanced plans to build nearly 800 homes in West Bank settlements just days before Trump left office. Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement watchdog, says Israel approved or advanced construction of over 12,000 settlement homes in 2020, the highest number in a single year since it began recording statistics in 2012.

Israel is also pressing ahead with massive infrastructure projects that will more closely link the settlements to its major cities and set the stage for future growth.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, blamed the growth of settlements on “the previous US administration and the current Israeli government,” reiterating that they are “illegal according to international law.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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