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Israel increased West Bank settlement spending immediately after Trump elected, data reveals

Investment could pave way for 'dramatic' expansion of settlement, say monitors

Chris Baynes
Tuesday 14 May 2019 19:44 BST
Both supporters and detractors claim Donald Trump's friendlier approach to settlements is leading to additional West Bank construction

Israel went on a spending binge in its West Bank settlements following Donald Trump’s election in the US, according to newly obtained official data.

Investment on roads, schools and public buildings in the territory increased 39 per cent in 2017, prompting suggestions Mr Trump’s presidency had emboldened Israel’s pro-settler government.

Both supporters and opponents of the settler movement have previously referred to a "Trump effect” – with claims the president's friendlier approach to settlements is paving the way for additional West Bank construction.

The new figures – obtained by the Associated Press in a freedom of information request – appear to provide evidence of this impact, although they do not prove a direct connection.

Hagit Ofran, a researcher with the anti-settlement monitoring group Peace Now, said Israel’s government was “not shy anymore with what they are doing”.

“They feel more free to do whatever they want,” she added.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, spokesman for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, offered even sharper criticism.

"This proves that the current US administration encouraged settlement activities," he said.

Since capturing the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war, Israel has settled some 700,000 of its citizens in the two areas, which are considered occupied territory by most of the world.

The international community has protested that Israel moving people into settlements in those territories is both illegal and a deliberate obstacle to any future Palestinian state.

The Palestinians, who claim both the West Bank and east Jerusalem as parts of their future state, consider the settlements illegal land grabs. Scores of fast-growing settlements control strategic hilltops and swaths of the West Bank, making it increasingly difficult to partition the territory.

For decades, the US had joined much of the international community in expressing concern over the settlements while doing little to halt their construction.

But since taking office, Mr Trump, whose inner circle of Middle East advisers have longstanding ties to the settler movement, has taken a different approach. The White House has urged restraint but refrained from the blanket condemnations of its Republican and Democratic predecessors.

"The Trump administration is undoubtedly the most friendly American administration of all time," said Oded Revivi, the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha settlers' council. "In contrast, the Obama years were extremely hard for Israel. Now we are making up for lost ground."

The government statistics, released by Israel's Finance Ministry, showed Israeli spending in the West Bank in 2017, Trump's first year in office, rose to 1.65 billion shekels, or $459.8m (£355m), from 1.19 billion shekels in 2016.

The 2017 figures were the highest in the 15 years of data provided by the Finance Ministry, though spending also climbed the previous year. In 2016, Barack Obama, a vocal critic of the settlements, was the final year of his presidency and relations with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu were cool.

In contrast, the lowest year of Israeli spending was 760.7 million shekels in 2009, when both Mr Netanyahu and Mr Obama took office.

The ministry released the data after two years of requests from the Associated Press, which received backing early this year from the Movement for Freedom of Information, a legal advocacy group that assists journalists.

The figures include only government spending, so construction and purchases of private homes are not included. Israel also does not include items like police, education, health and military spending, saying such services are provided to all Israelis regardless of where they live.

In addition, spending in east Jerusalem is excluded. Israel considers the area part of its capital, although the vast majority of the world does not recognise its annexation.

Even with these caveats, the data provide a valuable snapshot of Israel's priorities. The figures include spending on public construction projects, such as roads, schools, social centres, synagogues, shopping malls and industrial parks. They also include special development grants for local governments and mortgage subsidies.

Israel approves spending millions in West Bank settlement security

The areas with the strongest growth in 2017 were in school construction, which jumped 68 per cent, and road construction, which rose 54 per cent.

Mr Revivi, who is also mayor of the Efrat settlement near Jerusalem, said the spending was badly needed.

He said school spending was legally required because of the fast-growing population. He also said that roads in the West Bank have been in "dire condition" for years, and there was a drastic need for improvements.

But road construction also has deeper implications, according to Peace Now. New roads bring easier commutes and a better quality of life for settlers, drawing more people, said Ms Ofran.

"We see it very immediately, after the opening of a road, a big boom in construction along the road," she added. "I think the investments we have these years in the roads are dramatic and will allow the expansion of settlements dramatically. That is very much worrying."

Israel's education minister Naftali Bennett declined to comment, while transportation minister Israel Katz did not respond to a query. Both are strong supporters of the settlements.

Mr Netanyahu's office also did not answer a request for comment.

After winning re-election last month, the prime minister is in the process of forming a new coalition that is expected to have close ties with the settlers.

In recent months, both Peace Now and settler advocates have released reports claiming that Mr Trump's policies had laid the groundwork for a settlement boom in the near future.

In a statement, the US Embassy in Jerusalem repeated the White House policy.

"While the existence of settlements is not in itself an impediment to peace, further unrestrained settlement activity doesn't help peace," it said.

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The new data is likely to compound Palestinian distrust of the US, boding poorly for a new peace plan the Trump administration says it is preparing.

The Palestinian Authority cut off ties with the White House after Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital in December 2017 and subsequently moved the American embassy to the contested city. US cuts of hundreds of millions of dollars of aid for the Palestinians have further poisoned relations.

The Palestinians already have said they will reject any US peace plan, claiming the Trump administration was unfairly biased.

Abu Rdeneh, the Palestinian spokesman, said the new figures were "another reason why we think that the US plan is unfair".

The Finance Ministry data is collected each year and shared with the US, which under a policy going back to George HW Bush deducts the sum from loan guarantees for Israel.

Additional reporting by Associated Press

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