Israel has vastly increased its illegal settlement activity since US President Donald Trump took office, with settlement planning reaching its highest level since 2013.
According to newly-released data compiled by left-wing NGO Peace Now – which monitors Israel's settlement activity in the occupied West Bank through its Settlement Watch program – in 2018 Israel advanced plans for an additional 5,618 settlement units. Peace Now separated the figures into three categories: "plans", meaning the early stage of preparing an illegal settlement project; "tenders", when bids are sought from contractors to build the settlement; and "construction starts", when the building actually begins. According to Ynet:
Each of these figures tells a different story, [since] while construction starts give a snapshot of the current level of settlement activity, they reflect decisions made years ago. In contrast, the planning and tender stages are seen as forward-looking indicators of a government's intentions.
As a result of this delay between decision-making and construction, during Trump's first year in office construction starts actually dropped drastically – to 1,643 units in 2017 from 3,066 units in 2016. Ynet sees this as "reflect[ing] the lingering effect of reduced planning during the final two years of the Obama administration," which, by US standards, was reluctant to provide backing for Israel's settlement project.
Yet when using planning as a measure of settlement activity, the effect of Trump's strong support for the Israeli agenda is abundantly clear – "in 2017, plans were advanced to build 6,712 new settlement homes, roughly 2.5 times the 2016 level". Likewise tender applications also increased – 3,800 tenders were issued in 2018, compared to just 42 during Obama's final year in office in 2016. Tender figures from 2018 constitute "the highest number by far since Peace Now started compiling the data in 2002," Al Jazeera reported.
This huge level of expansion was thrust into the spotlight last week as Israel announced plans to build thousands of new housing units in the occupied West Bank. The High Planning Subcommittee of Israel's Civil Administration – which administers vast swathes of the occupied West Bank – gave the green light for the new settlements to go ahead, with 82 new units slated to be built near Ofra, situated on Route 60 east of Ramallah where several violent incidents took place in December. The international community criticised Israel's announcement, with the UK's Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt saying it "call[ed] into question Israel's commitment to any future peace agreement with the Palestinians". France also condemned the decision, stressing the two-state solution was "the only way to ensure a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians".
Peace Now states that there are 132 illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, not including East Jerusalem. In addition, a further 106 outposts are scattered across the territory. Though Israel differentiates between settlements – which are built with permission from the Israeli government – and outposts, which are established without government approval, both are illegal under international law which forbids the transfer of civilian populations into occupied territory.