Figures show: Peace talks and settlement construction go hand in hand

Successive Israeli governments have argued for years that settlements are not an obstacle to peace. The data tells a different story.

Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics revealed earlier this week that 2013 was a record year in settlement construction, while 2014 has seen the beginning of construction of 2,534 housing projects – a rise of 123 percent from 2013.

Settlement construction took place all over the West Bank – in the so-called settlement blocs, which could be annexed to Israel in a two-state framework; in isolated settlements that are slated to be evacuated under such an agreement; on the western side of Israel’s separation barrier (which was built inside the West Bank, rather than on the internationally-recognized border), as well as on its eastern side.

Those numbers do not include, however, significant “unofficial” construction taking place in “illegal” outposts, or construction in annexed East Jerusalem, which is not measured separately by the CBS.

Construction of housing units in the settlement of ‘Elkana,’ on the lands of the West Bank village of Masha, near Salfit, July 06, 2013. (Photo: Ahmad Al-Bazz/Activestills.org)
Construction of housing units in the settlement of ‘Elkana,’ on the lands of the West Bank village of Masha, near Salfit, July 06, 2013. (Photo: Ahmad Al-Bazz/Activestills.org)

When last year’s figures were published in Israel, there was a considerable pushback from the right, which claimed that the rise in construction projects for Jews in the occupied territories was meant to compensate for an unofficial settlement freeze in 2012. However, the rise in construction last year is just as high when compared to 2011 or 2010. In fact, 2013’s figure is the highest since the CBS started publishing this data in 2001.

Most of the construction (1,710 projects) is government-sponsored, a figure that says a lot the Netanyahu’s government’s effort at changing the reality on the ground.

The only other years in which the number of building projects surpassed 2,000 structures were 2003, 2005 and 2008. The interesting thing is that aside from 2003, these were all years in which there was so-called “progress” made between Israel and the Palestinian Authority vis-a-vis peace negotiations. For example, 2005 was the year of the disengagement, while 2008 saw direct negotiations between Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert (the Annapolis summit, which began the process, took place in November 2007).

And while there is no earlier data on construction in the occupied territories, it is worth noting that during the Oslo process (from the signing of the first agreement in 1993 to the Taba summit in 2001) the number of settlers almost doubled – from 116,300 to 208,300, not including the Jewish neighborhoods in annexed East Jerusalem. Just during the short time Ehud Barak spent as prime minister, the number of Jews in the West Bank rose by 35,000, with settlers making up 3.2 percent of the Jewish population, as opposed to 1.7 percent when Oslo kicked off [1].

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Successive Israeli governments have argued for years that settlements are not an obstacle to peace. However, those same prime ministers who directly negotiated with the Palestinians (or, in Sharon’s case, took unilateral action that was presented as an effort to end the occupation) were the ones who, at the very same time, strengthened Israel’s grip over occupied territory and transferred more Jews to what was supposed to be the heart of the future Palestinian State.

Periods in which talks didn’t take place and international attention was aimed at the reality on the ground (rather than diplomacy), were those in which Israel was relatively restrained in its colonization of the West Bank. According to CBS, the year with the lowest figures was 2010 (737 projects) – the year of the confrontation between the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s previous government, and the partial settlement freeze that followed.

[1] These figures are cited by Shaul Arieli in “A Border Between Us and You,” Yedioth Ahronoth Books, 2013, Hebrew.

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