Israeli NGO report that in ten years Netanyahu built 20,000 new settler housing units

A study by Peace Now shows that some 630,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. According to the NGO, the Israeli government is digging “a pit" for the country. In 2017, the government spent NIS 1.650 billion on settlements.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – Israel has built nearly 20,000 settler homes in the occupied West Bank in the past decade under Benjamin Netanyahu's premiership, anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now notes in its annual settlement report, which highlights how the issue complicates the chances of resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

About 630,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem in tense proximity to three million Palestinians. But the report does not include Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, the mainly Palestinian sector of the city.

"The Israeli government is digging the country a pit to fall in," the NGO says in a statement accompanying the report. "Even if the government does not believe that peace can be achieved in the near future, there is no logic to expanding the settlements and making the solution impossible."

The report comes as Netanyahu begins a fifth term after April's general election and the White House gets ready to unveil a peace proposal it has been working on for months.

It notes the construction of 19,346 settler homes between 2009 -- the year that Netanyahu became prime minister for a second time -- and the end of 2018.

Last year alone, the annual average of construction was 9 per cent above the average since 2009. Furthermore, about 70 per cent of construction was in isolated settlements. 

During his election campaign, Netanyahu said he would start annexing the West Bank settlements if he was returned to power.

At the time, his main rival, Benny Gantz, described the policy as irresponsible. Even US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to comment it, despite the strong tie between Netanyahu and the US administration under President Donald Trump.

The settlements are communities inhabited by Israeli civilians and military and built in the territories conquered after the Six-Day War in June 1967, namely the Sinai, West Bank, East Jerusalem, Golan Heights and Gaza Strip.

In 1982, Israel pulled out of the Sinai after signing a peace agreement with Egypt in 1979. In 2005 the then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the dismantling of 17 colonies in the Gaza Strip.

Currently, there are Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. All of them are illegal under international law.

Peace Now spokeswoman Hagit Ofran said that a two-state solution could demand the relocation of about 150,000 settlers. Such a number would be a political impossibility for the right-wing Netanyahu.

In 2017, the government spent NIS 1.650 billion (US$ 460 million) on the settlements, compared to NIS 1.189 billion (US$ 330 million) in 2016.

This was the largest sum spent on the settlements in at least a decade. Spending on West Bank roads, schools and public buildings spiked by 39 per cent in 2017.

For Peace Now, Trump’s election seems to have encouraged Israel's expansionist policy. "They are not shy anymore with what they are doing," Hagit Ofran explains. "They feel more free to do whatever they want."