Director of Development & External Relations for the Israeli NGO Peace Now, Anat Ben Nun, told Mondoweiss that according to the group’s data, the Israeli government’s announcement of a settlement freeze made last month is a distortion of facts.
Reports of the “freeze” initially emerged on June 23, when the Jerusalem Post reported that sources told the publication Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had promised the United States to freeze the publication of new tenders for building projects in occupied West Bank settlements for the rest of the year.
While Netanyahu may have made such a promise, according to Peace Now, the number of tenders already approved for 2017, which will not be affected by the reported freeze, are higher than the total number of new tenders approved per year in more than 15 years, while the number of individual housing units approved so far in 2017 is more than any year since 1992, according to Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.
“Checking out the numbers, this looks nothing like a settlement freeze,” Ben Nun said. “Just this month they promoted plans for over 3,000 housing units — to call that a freeze is nonsense.”
According to data from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (ICBS), the occupied West Bank has seen a 70 percent increase in illegal Israeli settlement construction over the past 12 months.
The report, released last week. outlined the massive increase in settlement construction between April 2016 and the end of March 2017, during which construction of 2,758 housing units began in settlements, compared to the 12 months previously, which saw 1,619 construction launches.
While the study shows a 70 percent increase in settlement construction in the past 12 months, it also showed a decline during the first three months of 2017. In 2017’s first quarter, construction on 344 housing units began, whereas during the first three months of 2016 there was 447 construction starts. This represents a 23 percent decrease between the two year’s first quarters. That decrease was the focus of Israeli media, instead of the 70 percent increase experienced over the 12 month period or other data that shows an intense surge in settlement expansion.
Even if the first six months of 2017 are compared with the first six months of 2016, the numbers for this year are nearly doubled.
In a Jerusalem Post article entitled “Israeli settlement construction down 23% amid cried of freeze,” it was reported that Israeli Members of Knesset attacked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for not being strong enough in regards to settlement expansion.
In response to the criticism, Netanyahu defended his record, stating: “There has not been, nor will there will be, a better government for settlements than ours.”
“We are building in all areas of the land. We are doing it with determination, systematically and wisely,” he stated.
Three days later, Netanyahu declared the “settlement freeze” on new tenders in 2017, telling his top ministers that the policy was a “goodwill” gesture to U.S. President Donald Trump, whose stance is that settlement expansion “may not be helpful” in achieving his goals of reaching a peace deal. Trump has asked Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements a little bit.”
“Regardless, there’s definitely no actual freeze whatsoever in terms of promotion of plans,” Ben Nun said. “We saw maybe double the number of plans for the past six months. Calling this so-called freeze is just the [Israeli] government trying to make the international community happy, when in fact the promotion of settlement plans is happening very quickly this year.”
Netanyahu’s move to please the U.S. position has come much to the dismay of the Israeli right, like Education Minister Bennett, whose small Orthodox-nationalist party is part of Netanyahu’s governing coalition.
“Unfortunately from our perspective, [Trump] is sort of going down the same unsuccessful path that his predecessors did,” Bennett said last week. “So yes, there is disappointment out there.”
While settlement construction is at an all time high, on the other side of the Green Line Israel is still experiencing a housing crisis. However, according to ICBS data between April 2016 and March 2017 there has been a decrease of 2.65 percent in construction starts within Israel proper.
“Instead of working to solve the Israeli housing crisis, the government prioritizes a radical minority living beyond the boundaries of the state,” Peace Now said in a statement analyzing the ICBS data. “Yet the highest price to be paid for the sharp increase in construction starts beyond the Green Line is a political price, as such construction continues to distance us from the only way to end the Israeli Palestinian conflict – a two state solution.”
The Israeli right seems to think settlement construction is the best option to solve Israel’s internal housing crisis. Earlier this month Israeli Minister of Housing and Construction Yoav Galant proposed a bill suggesting 67,000 additional illegal settlement housing units be built in the occupied West Bank in order to deal with soaring housing prices in Israel.
As of 2017, more than half a million Israelis live in settlements across the occupied West Bank, all of which are considered illegal under international law. There are an estimated 196 official settlements approved by the government, in addition to a number of other non-government sanctioned settler outposts.
Much of the international community considers the settlements and settlement expansions one of the biggest threats to negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.