Growth rate of settlements plummets to all-time low
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Growth rate of settlements plummets to all-time low

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The West Bank settler growth rate dropped to an all-time low of 2.3% in 2020, the last year of the tenures of both former president Donald Trump and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to data published Sunday by the Central Bureau of Statistics.

This shows that “we are in an existential battle,” Beit El council head Shai Alon told The Jerusalem Post.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), the gap between the national growth rate – which fell from 1.9% in 2019 to 1.6% last year – and settler growth rate had significantly narrowed, leaving the settler growth rate just 0.7 points above the national average.

When Netanyahu came into office in 2009, the national growth rate was 1.8%, while the settler growth rate was close to three times as high at 5.3%.

In real numbers, the population in all the settlements grew by only 10,100, bringing it up to 451,700 people, compared to 441,600 last year.

The real growth has been this low twice before in the last 26 years, once in 1995 and again in 2001. But the growth rate was still way above natural growth, at 8.5% and 5%, respectively.

This time around the increase of 10,100 people was less than the natural growth of 12,200, according to the CBS.

It’s the first time that settler growth has fallen below natural growth. This puts into context statements by both Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid about building up to natural growth.

In the past, that had always suggested a potential settlement freeze, because population growth in Judea and Samaria had always been above the average. Now, for the first time, just building settlement growth to natural growth would actually be an increase.

The issue, in part, was the gap between the high rate by which the IDF’s Civil Administration advanced building projects compared to the low rate of actual construction, particularly in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic broke.

According to the left-wing group Peace Now, which monitors settlement activity, plans were advanced or approved for 12,159 homes in 2020.

In contrast, the CBS reported that ground had been broken for only 1,145 homes that year, the lowest such number in almost a decade. During Netanyahu’s tenure, there were two high points of construction, in 2013 when there were 2,945 housing starts and in 2016 when ground was broken for 3,320 units.

Otherwise, the number of construction starts have in the last decade hovered between 1,214 and 2,397. The lack of a dramatic housing increase led to a drop in the growth rate.

The 10-month moratorium on housing starts from November 2009-September 2010, during the Obama administration, also held back growth.

The Yesha Council had already warned of a slowdown in January when its internal numbers showed that the growth rate had dropped to 2.6%.

Yesha Council CEO Yigal Dilmoni was skeptical that it had dropped as low as 2.3%, but said that they were paying the price for the freeze that occurred during the Obama administration.

The rate of approvals for building is long and protracted so that the impact can be felt five and 10 years into the future, Dilmoni said.

Still he noted that growth had obviously occurred during Netanyahu’s tenure. According to the CBS, the number of settlers when Netanyahu entered office in 2009 was 296,700 and that number grew by 155,000 in the following 11 years.

The Yesha Council is concerned that growth rate might continue to fall because of a de facto freeze on the advancement of settlement plans by the Bennett-Lapid government.

Since Bennett took office in June, no significant settlement plans have been approved. The Civil Administration had initially been scheduled to advance plans in August for 2,223 settler homes, but the meeting was canceled due to a strike.

Once the strike was over it was not rescheduled. On Sunday, settler leaders briefly set up a protest tent outside Bennett’s office accusing him of drying up the settlements.

Settler leaders and activists demonstrate outside the Prime Minister’s office, September 9, 2021 (credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)

Binyamin Regional Council head Israel Gantz has said that even if the plans go through they only involve 14 homes for his entire region, which would otherwise be frozen.

“If the situation is not resolved, we will return here after the holidays in greater numbers.”

Efrat Council head Oded Revivi said growth has continued in his community, but at a slower pace than he would like.

Residents read about a project in the newspaper and call to purchase a home, only to be told they have years to wait until it is even viable, he told The Jerusalem Post.

The problem is international pressure, particularly from the Americans, he explained.

There “were always checks and balances between the Israeli government and the US administration, about what we can live with and what would be too much for [the US],” Revivi said.

Alon told the Post that pre-Trump administrations impeded progress and the Biden administration is adding to that.

He noted that plans for 300 homes on an abandoned army base which Netanyahu had delayed approving, have finally been authorized, but not marketed. Essentially, the project, he said, is frozen.

“I’m dependent on the Americans,” he said.

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