Israel plans 2,500 new West Bank settlement units in Trump's first days in office

The Israeli government says that a majority of the housing units will be built in settlement blocs, areas where most settlers live and that Israel wants to keep under its control in the event of any future peace deal with the Palestinians.

Oded Balilty/AP/File
A general view of a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit in 2011. In a statement from his office, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman says he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to approve 2,500 homes in West Bank settlements 'in response to housing needs.'

For the second time in the four days since President Trump was sworn into office, Israel announced it will build more settlement units in the West Bank.

In a statement from Defense Ministry Avigdor Lieberman on Tuesday, Israel said the 2,500 new homes are being built to fulfill the demand for new housing “to maintain regular daily life.” The announcement follows the unveiling by the Jerusalem municipality on Sunday of plans to build 566 new homes in contested East Jerusalem. East Jerusalem was captured by the Israelis in the Six-Day War of 1967 but today many Palestinians argue that it should be the capital of an independent state.

The announcements of the new settlement units appear to foreshadow the future course of relations between the right-wing Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the new Trump administration. Under pressure from both President Obama during his eight years in office and much of the international community, Mr. Netanyahu has long tried to perform a balancing act between right-wing Israeli pressure for settlement expansion and peace through a two-state solution. But Mr. Trump and his closest advisers on the region have signaled they will be much more sympathetic to settlement construction, with Jerusalem apparently responding in kind.

“We are building – and we will continue to build,” Netanyahu wrote in a Facebook post on Tuesday, announcing the agreement he reached with Mr. Lieberman.

Most of the 2,500 units, said Lieberman, would be in existing settlement “blocs,” areas where most settlers live and which Israel would be likely to want to keep under its control under any future peace deal with the Palestinians. The Defense Ministry administers land captured in the 1967 War.

On Sunday, the Jerusalem City Council approved an additional 566 new housing units in a contested part of East Jerusalem, a project that been delayed over former Mr. Obama’s objections.

Some 400,000 settlers live in the West Bank, up from fewer than 23,000 Israelis in 1980. The major blocs, part of the about 200 Jewish settlements, are clustered along the Israeli border. But there are more than 100 settlement outposts scattered across hilltops in the West Bank, a region some in Israel refer to by its biblical name of Judea and Samaria. Settlers’ reasons for living there vary, as The Christian Science Monitor has previously reported.

“Many of them are driven by religious or ideological convictions – from fulfilling biblical prophecy to bolstering Israel's security in a time of regional upheaval,” wrote Christa Case Bryant.  

But Palestinians say Tuesday’s announcement will do nothing more than fuel violence and instability in the region.

"The decision will hinder any attempt to restore security and stability, it will reinforce extremism and terrorism and will place obstacles in the path of any effort to start a peace process that will lead to security and peace," said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, adding the announcement would have “consequences.”

“Once again, the Israeli government has proved that it is more committed to land theft and colonialism than to the two-state solution and the requirements for peace and stability,” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, added in a statement.

“It is evident that Israel is exploiting the inauguration of the new American administration to escalate its violations and the prevention of any existence of a Palestinian state,” she said.

The Obama administration, along with much of the international community, repeatedly labeled settlement expansion as an obstacle to peace because it reduces and fragments the territory Palestinians want for a state. The United Nations considers settlement construction illegal, passing a resolution in Obama’s final days that condemned West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements as having no legal validity and continuing a “flagrant violation of international law.”

But international condemnation has come as support in Israel for the settlement movement has grown. What was once a fringe movement has become almost mainstream. Although some Israelis are still very opposed to settlements, the percentage of Israeli Jews who say that they believe the settlements help Israel’s security jumped from 31 percent in 2013 to 42 percent in 2015, according to a Pew survey. The Israel Democracy Institute, as part of its monthly Peace Index, also found last month that 44 percent of Israeli Jews support annexing the West Bank.

Trump and his closest advisers are expected to be much more sympathetic to settlement construction. Trump has indicated he will not continue his predecessor’s opposition to settlement building. And while he has remained mum on these most recent announcements, two of his closest advisers have ties to one of the settlements slated to expand under the new construction. Both David Friedman, Trump’s nominated ambassador to Israel, and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner have supported the settlement of Beit El. Mr. Friedman has served as the president of American Friends of Beit El, a group that raises funds for the settlement, while Mr. Kushner’s family has donated to the settlement. 

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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