Despite declarations to the contrary by Israeli government officials, settlements in the occupied Palestinian Territory are expanding, a report in Haaretz has revealed.
The article draws on data published by Peace Now’s Settlement Watch team, as well as official figures by the government’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS).
The two sources together show both “a sharp increase in actual building starts in the West Bank and East Jerusalem”, as well as “evidence of a surge in construction planning activity that encompasses both new housing and the retroactive legalisation of existing homes.”
According to figures prepared by Settlement Watch at Haaretz’s request, since the Jewish new year in September 2015, “the number of advancing plans for new housing units in the settlements almost quadrupled in comparison to the previous year.”
Plans to construct 2,168 new housing units advanced in some way over the last Jewish year; over the previous year, the corresponding figure was 553. Furthermore, 1,170 housing units previously built without permits received retroactive approval, compared to 444 during the previous year.
Haaretz reported that “much of this new building activity is taking place in locations like Ariel, far away from Israel’s internationally recognised border or any other likely future border. As such, it appears aimed at blocking any future evacuation of the settlements.”
Hagit Ofran, director of the Settlement Watch project at Peace Now, said: “We are seeing dramatic growth in the past year in two particular settlements — Ariel and Efrat — which are especially problematic because…they are situated in places where it would be harder to pull out from in the event of a peace agreement.”
Ofran added that the figures do not even tell the entire story. “Tenders are only required in 13 settlements, so lots of construction activity is happening in other places without any tenders being issued.”
Meanwhile, CBS data published three weeks ago shows that, while building starts in Israel as a whole were down seven per cent in the first half of this calendar year, compared with the same period last year, in West Bank settlements they were up close to 17 per cent.
CBS figures show that the Jewish settler population in the West Bank grew by 4.1 per cent last year, compared with a much slower rate of two per cent among the general population. “Some 386,000 Jews are living in the West Bank, with another 203,000 in East Jerusalem.”
According to Dror Etkes, director of NGO Kerem Navot: “Under Netanyahu, there’s been a renewed focus on what are known as the ideological settlements on the eastern side of the barrier.”
This is affirmed by Settlement Watch; their figures show that while the percentage of new housing starts on the eastern side of the Separation Wall was some 20 per cent of total settlement construction before Netanyahu returned as prime minister, since then, it has gone up to 35 per cent.