Trump-era settlement growth continues in his absence

JERUSALEM – The growth of the Israeli settler population in the West Bank has accelerated over the past year, according to figures released Thursday by a pro-settler group, despite renewed American pressure to curb construction on occupied territory that the Palestinians plan to build for a future one want state.

The numbers show that a wave of settlements launched during President Donald Trump’s administration is showing no signs of slowing down.

Trump provided unprecedented support for Israel’s claims to war-seized land, reversing decades of US policy.

President Joe Biden’s administration has returned to its previous approach, criticizing settlement expansion as an obstacle to conflict resolution. But Israel has continued to build and expand settlements, and major road projects are expected to bring even more settlers to the area.

Statistics, compiled by and based on official figures, show that the settler population had grown to 490,493 as of Jan. 30, an increase of nearly 3.2 percent over 13 months. Since the statistics began in 2017, the population has increased by 16.5 percent, they say.

Israel’s compound annual growth rate, by comparison, is around 1.7 percent. In 2020, the last year of the Trump administration, which also saw repeated corona lockdowns, the settler population in the West Bank grew by 2.6 percent, according to the group.

“There’s a tremendous amount of construction going on,” said its CEO, Baruch Gordon, also 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 completed within a year or a year and a half. So if that happens, it will increase the size of our city by about 25 percent,” he said.

The settler population tends to be younger and more religious, with a higher average birth rate. Many Israelis are drawn to the state-subsidized settlements because of the quality of life.

Resembling suburbs or small towns, they offer lower housing prices than Israel’s overcrowded and increasingly unaffordable cities. The pandemic may have made the settlements even more attractive.

“Just like in America, people from Manhattan moved to the suburbs and found they could live in more open spaces, and the same thing is happening in Israel,” Gordon said.

His numbers do not include East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in an internationally unrecognized move and is now home to more than 200,000 Jewish settlers. The West Bank and East Jerusalem together are home to about 3 million Palestinians.

Israel conquered both territories along with Gaza in the 1967 Middle East War.

Palestinians view settlement growth as the main obstacle to peace, as it cuts Palestinian communities off their land and from each other, making it nearly impossible to create a viable state. Settlements have been expanded under every Israeli government, even at the height of the peace process in the 1990s.

There have been no serious peace negotiations in over a decade, and Israel’s current Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, is a former settler leader opposed to Palestinian statehood.

Israel’s political system is dominated by pro-settler parties that see the West Bank as the biblical and historical heartland of the Jewish people.

The international community still believes a two-state solution is the only realistic way to resolve the centuries-old conflict, but it has given Israel no incentive to end the occupation – now well into its sixth decade.

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