Israeli settlement growth continues despite hostile US policy
The growth of Israel’s West Bank Jewish population has accelerated over the past year, figures released Thursday by a pro-settler group show, despite renewed US pressure to curb construction on the territory the Palestinians want for a future State.
Figures show that a wave of settlements initiated when US President Donald Trump was in power shows no signs of abating. Trump has provided unprecedented support for Israel’s claims to land seized during the war, reversing decades of US policy.
President Joe Biden’s administration has reverted to the previous approach, criticizing settlement expansion as an obstacle to resolving the conflict. But Israel has continued to build and expand settlements, and major road projects are expected to bring even more Jews to the territory.
The statistics, compiled by WestBankJewishPopulationStats.com and based on official figures, show the Jewish population grew to 490,493 as of January 30, an increase of nearly 3.2% over 13 months. The population has increased by 16.5% since the group started compiling statistics in 2017, it says.
Israel’s overall annual growth rate, by comparison, is around 1.7%. In 2020, the last year of the Trump administration, which has also seen repeated coronavirus lockdowns, the Jewish population in the West Bank grew by 2.6%, according to the group.
“There’s an awful lot of construction going on,” said its CEO, Baruch Gordon, including in his community of Beit El, just outside the West Bank city of Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority is headquartered.
“Right now, there are 350 units under construction that will probably be finished within a year, a year and a half. So when that happens, it will increase the size of our city by about 25%,” he said.
The Jewish population in the West Bank tends to be younger and more religious, with a higher average birth rate. Many Israelis are drawn to state-subsidized settlements for their quality of life. They resemble suburbs or small towns and offer lower housing prices than Israel’s crowded and increasingly unaffordable cities. The pandemic might have made settlements even more attractive.
“Just like in America, people left Manhattan and went to the suburbs and found they could live in more open spaces, and the same is happening in Israel,” Gordon said.
Its figures do not include East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in an internationally unrecognized move, and which is now home to more than 200,000 Jews. The West Bank and East Jerusalem together are home to some 3 million Palestinians.
Israel captured both territories from Jordan, as well as Gaza, in the 1967 Six-Day War. others, and make the creation of a viable state almost impossible. Settlements have expanded under every Israeli government, even at the height of the peace process in the 1990s.
There have been no serious peace negotiations for more than a decade, and Israel’s current prime minister, Naftali Bennett, is a former West Bank settlement leader opposed to a Palestinian state. Israel’s political system is dominated by pro-settler parties that view the West Bank as the biblical and historical heartland of the Jewish people.
The international community still sees a two-state solution as the only realistic way to resolve the century-old conflict, but it has failed to prompt Israel to end its presence in the territory – now well into its sixth. decade.
Hagit Ofran, an expert with the anti-settlement monitor Peace Now, says the population figures are an imprecise measure of growth because they reflect the higher birth rate and people moving into homes built after years of planning. and approval.
She says that while American pressure appears to have succeeded in suspending some of the more controversial colonization projects, the whole enterprise is proceeding in the same way as it always has, with several projects gradually progressing and new houses and roads under construction.
“The Americans, as far as I know, are trying to stop it and have had very limited success,” she said.
The seemingly permanent military presence has led three well-known human rights groups to conclude that Israel is committing the international crime of apartheid by systematically denying Palestinians equal rights. Israel rejects these accusations as an attack on its very existence as a Jewish-majority state.
The increasingly authoritarian and unpopular Palestinian Authority, established by agreements with Israel in the 1990s, administers parts of the West Bank, while the Islamic militant group Hamas controls Gaza, from where Israel has withdrawn its troops and its Jewish civilians in 2005.
Israel’s current government, which draws on support from parties across the political spectrum, is committed to preserving the status quo, without settlement freezes or formal annexation. He also took steps to improve the economic conditions of the Palestinians.
But Ofran says that in practice, pro-settler ministers and other officials do as they please, and the government does damage control when called upon.
“The foreign secretary is getting phone calls from Americans, or whatever, and all of a sudden the government has to do something about it,” she said.