Israel’s policy in the West Bank is determined by the Israeli government, yet the United States’ influence on this policy is paramount. In President Donald J. Trump’s four years in office, there have been far-reaching changes in the American position on Israeli settlements that have shattered the international consensus around a two-state solution, and which have promoted annexation in all but name. The de facto annexation has manifested itself in high levels of settlement unit approvals, transgressions of informal international red lines in highly sensitive areas like the Jerusalem environs and Hebron, and the building of over 30 new outposts. Consequently, de jure annexation became a legitimate topic in the Israeli and American governments, while Israel has created for itself and the Palestinians a near permanent, undemocratic one-state reality.
Peace Now: “The Trump administration lent the power of the United States to the benefit of the narrow interests of a small, radical group of settlers, and has done enormous damage to Israel. We expect the incoming administration of President-Elect Biden to be attentive to the peace-seeking majority in Israel and to restore the United States to its status as a constructive intermediary for a two-state solution.”
- The number of plans promoted in the settlements increased 2.5 times compared to the previous four years – 26,331 housing units were promoted in the settlements in the years 2017-2020, compared to 10,331 housing units in the years 2013-2016.
- The number of tenders in the settlements doubled – tenders were published for 2,425 housing units in the settlements, compared with 1,164 housing units in the previous four years.
- Infrastructure and road projects were designed to add another million settlers – In recent years, the Israeli government has begun infrastructure and road projects designed to form the development axis for settlements with an investment of billions of shekels.
These roads include, among others: doubling “the Tunnels Road” (bypassing Bethlehem), Al-Arroub bypass (completing a four-lane road from Jerusalem to Hebron), the Eastern Ring Road from A-Za’ayyim and Anata (AKA “the Apartheid Road), Hawara bypass (south of Nablus), the Qalandiya underpass, Nabi Eliyas bypass and other roads.
- Construction was promoted in particularly destructive places for the prospects of peace (i.e. places which were considered an Israeli and international taboo):
- Promoted plans will add 100,000 settlers in settlements that Israel will have to evacuate – 78% of the promoted plans (20,629 housing units) are in settlements that Israel will have to evacuate under a two-state agreement (according to the Geneva Initiative model). Major developments include:
- E1 – Plans were deposited for 3,401 housing units.
- Givat Hamatos – A tender was published for 1,077 housing units.
- Hebron – The government has approved the construction of about 100 housing units that will double the number of settlers in the Palestinian city.
- Large expansions in the heart of the West Bank: 1,103 units for settlements surrounding Nablus (Bracha, Elon Moreh, Itamar, Yizhar, Shavei Shomron); 2,687 units in settlements surrounding Ramallah (Beit El, Ofra, Psagot, Kochav Yaacov, Dolev, Talmon and its outposts); 2,279 units in settlements between Ramallah and Nablus (Eli, Shilo, Shvut Rachel and the new settlement of Amihai).
- Outposts – At least 31 new outposts were established during the Trump administration (compared to 9 in the previous four years). In addition, 10 outposts were retroactively legalized (their “regularization” plan took effect), compared to 7 outposts in the previous four years.
- Undermining the Israeli, Palestinian, and international consensus on the parameters for solving the conflict’s core issues and presenting a plan for annexation: moving the embassy to Jerusalem while taking the issue “off the table,” canceling UNRWA support implying that the Palestinian refugees issue is no longer a problem, and legally legitimizing settlements. The Trump Plan, published in January 2020, presents a model for Israeli annexation without even minimal Palestinian independence.
- Evacuation of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem in favor of settlers – In the four years of the Trump administration, about 6 Palestinian families in the Muslim Quarter and Sheikh Jarrah were evicted (based on restitution of Jewish property before 1948, while such laws are not afforded to Palestinians), compared to only one family in Silwan in the previous four years. (Evacuation of families on the grounds of settler acquisition claims continued both in previous years and under the Trump administration).
- Changing the rules of the game to de facto annexation: allowing land expropriation and applying Knesset laws into the West Bank (“from occupation to apartheid”) – A series of legal opinions approving the expropriation of Palestinian land contrary to previous rulings and legal positions that expropriation of land in favor of the occupying population is strictly prohibited. Legislative procedures of laws enacted by the Knesset or under government directive led Israel to apply administrative laws and procedures over the Green Line in the West Bank, despite it not being officially part of Israel.
Impact of the Trump Administration on the Settlements
On the evening of November 1, 2020, soon before the U.S. presidential election, an unusual event took place in Hebron: dozens of settler leaders and heads of settlement authorities gathered in the Cave of Patriarchs in Hebron to pray for Donald Trump’s success in the upcoming election. Though this event was unusual, it was not surprising. In fact, it is expected that settlement leaders would wish for his success. Trump’s four years in office allowed settlers to achieve meaningful changes in terms of policies and facts on the ground.
The Deal of the Century
Trump began his term with the declaration of his intention to propose “the deal of the century,” a deal that would solve the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Immediately afterwards, he took a series of steps, unprecedented in American policy, that reflected the essence of his plan: to remove the two-state solution from the agenda. Trump’s position on three issues at the core of the conflict was:
- No to a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem – Trump moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and recognized the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem.
- No to solving the refugee crisis – Trump cancelled American support for UNRWA, an organization that aids Palestinian refugees, implying that refugees are not his problem.
- No to a Paelstininan state with 1967 borders – Trump did not act to prevent Israel from continuing settlement construction; his administration even declared that the settlements in the occupied territories are not a violation of international law.
The “Trump Plan,” finally presented in January 2020, does not even include the vision of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel, but instead suggests a sort of minimal autonomy for Palestinians without territorial contiguity, without independence, and without significant powers.
Settlement Policy in the Trump Era
The American president does not set Israeli policy – the Israeli government does. That said, the American government does have significant influence on Israeli policy, especially on non Israel-internal issues which have regional and international implications, such as settlement policy in the occupied territories. Unlike previous American administrations, the Trump Administration has almost completely refrained from criticizing Israel’s settlement policies and has even supported statements and actions that further develop the settlements.
Importantly, settlement development is not simply a matter of how many housing units are built, but also depends on the location of construction, the development of infrastructure, and the legal changes that enable Israel to deepen its control over the territories. In the past four years, there have been substantial changes in the “rules of the game” of settlement policy. Projects and construction have been promoted in areas where settlements are particularly destructive to the prospects of peace and the two-state solution.
Along with increasing settlement activity, there has also been a significant increase in the demolition of Plaestinian homes – in 2020, a record number of homes were demolished in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The eviction of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem has continued in order to make way for more settlements. Six properties were evacuated in favor of government-sponsored settlers (according to the principle of exercising the “right of return” for Jews), along with 25 additional properties which were evacuated following settlers’ purchase claims. For the first time since 2009, a family was evicted from their home in Sheikh Jarrah for the benefit of settlers.
Plans for Bringing 100,000 New Settlers to Areas that Israel Will Have to Evacuate
In the four years of the Trump Administration (2017-2020), an average of 7,792 housing units were proposed and approved in the settlements each year, as compared to an average of 2,940 units per year in the four previous years. This means that the number of housing units approved in the Trump era was 2.7 times the number approved in the Obama era.
Out of 26,331 housing units built in the past four years, 20,629 housing units (78%) are in settlements deep in the West Bank, areas that Israel will be forced to evacuate under a two-state agreement (according to the Geneva Initiative model). This means that the Israeli government has advanced construction to house 100,000 settlers, each of whom will have to evacuate once an agreement is reached.
The construction plans include:
- 2,279 housing units in settlements in the heart of the West Bank between Ramallah and Nablus: 1,249 units in Eli, 928 units in the Shvut Rachel, and 102 units in the new Amihai settlement
- 1,103 housing units in settlements surrounding Nablus: 600 units in Har Bracha, 121 units Yizhar, 152 units in Shavei Shomron, 123 units in Itamar, and 107 units in Elon Moreh
- 2,687 housing units in settlements surrounding Ramallah: 654 units in Beit El, 382 units in Dolev, 258 units in Harasha, 395 units in Kerem Reim, 190 units in Kochav Yaakov, 142 units in Ofra, 27 units in Psagot, and 669 units in Talmon and its outposts.
- 3,401 housing units in E1: In February 2020, the Israeli government approved the advancement of construction plans in E1. This construction is considered lethal to the prospect of a two-state solution because it divides the West Bank into two – a northern region and a southern region – and prevents the development of the central Ramallah-East Jerusalem-Bethlehem metropolis in the West Bank. The E1 plans have not progressed for many years due to international (including American) pressure that has been exerted on Israel to prevent such drastic measures.
- Tenders for 1,077 housing units in Givat Hamatos: Also in February 2020, the government issued a tender for the construction of 1,077 housing units in Givat Hamatos in East Jerusalem. The construction is intended to block the last remaining point of territorial contiguity between East Jerusalem and Bethlehem and prevent the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state. Advancing this plan in the past cast a heavy shadow over Netanyahu’s meeting with President Obama in September 2014.
- Progress on new construction for settlements in Hebron: The settlement in Hebron is one of the most sensitive places in the conflict, and it is the ugly face of Israeli control of the territories. In order to control a handful of settlers in the heart of a Palestinian city, the IDF takes extreme measures against the Palestinian population, including closing streets, houses, and stores. These measures have cost Israel its morality as well as its public image.
For the first time since 2002, the government has promoted construction plans for new settlement construction inside the city of Hebron. In October 2017, the Higher Planning Council approved a building permit for the construction of 31 housing units in the Old Central Station area; the building permit was issued last week. In November 2018, the Minister of Defense approved plans for the construction of an additional 60 housing units on the wholesale market in Hebron.
Progress of Plans – Housing Units by Years
In the four years of the Trump administration (2017 to 2020), tenders were issued for the building of an average of 2,425 housing units per year. This is twice as many as the previous four years, during which tenders were issued for an average of 1,164 units per year.
The Infrastructure Revolution Preparing the Settlements to Absorb Another Million Settlers
One of the most important components in settlement development and construction is the road infrastructure. The moment that there are good, safe, fast roads, the settlements along those roads become more attractive and fill up. For example, a Peace Now analysis showed that the opening of the “Lieberman Road” (the road that bypasses Bethlehem on the east) in 2008 led to a doubling in the number of settlers in the area in less than a decade.
In recent years, the Netanyahu government has invested hundreds of millions of shekels in unprecedented road development since the construction of the bypass roads in the 1990s.
Among other things, the construction of significant central routes began with an investment of close to one billion shekels:
- Doubling of the Tunnel Road – Quarrying of new tunnels and a new bridge on the Bethlehem Bypass from the west connects the settlements in the Bethlehem and Hebron areas to Jerusalem. Work began in 2019.
- Al-Aroub Bypass – From the Gush Etzion junction south of the road that bypasses Halhul and Hebron. Together with the Tunnels Road, this road will complete the doubling of the existing roads to four routes connecting Jerusalem with Kiryat Arba and Hebron. Work began in late 2020.
- Eastern Ring Road (al-Za’ayyim – Anata) – This road, also known as the “Apartheid Road, opened to traffic in 2018.
- Huwwara bypass road south of Nablus – The investmet of hundreds of millions and the expropriation of hundreds of dunams of Palestinian land for the benefit of four small settlements. The Tender for the construction of the road was published in 2020.
- Qalandiya underpass – An interchange that will allow settlers north of Jerusalem to enter Israel without passing through Jerusalem itself, thereby avoiding traffic at the Hizma checkpoint. The detailed planning has been completed and work is expected to begin in 2021.
- Other projects
- Doubling Road 446 from Modi’in Illit to the Shilat Junction – Completed in 2019
- Nabi Eliyas bypass road east of Qalqilya – Opened to traffic in 2018
- Adam Junction Interchange
- Public transportation lane at the entrance to Pisgat Ze’ev – Completed in 2019
- Tunnel at French Hill Junction – Work began in 2020
- South Eastern Ring Road – Work began in 2019
- Even more projects are in various stages of development and implementation.