EFRAT, West Bank — An aggressive Israeli settlement spree during the Trump era pushed deeper than ever into the occupied West Bank — territory the Palestinians seek for a state — with over 9,000 homes built and thousands more in the pipeline, an AP investigation showed.
If left unchallenged by the Biden administration, the construction boom could make fading hopes for an internationally backed two-state solution — Palestine alongside Israel — even more elusive.
Satellite images and data obtained by The Associated Press document for the first time the full impact of the policies of then-President Donald Trump, who abandoned decades-long U.S. opposition to the settlements and proposed a Mideast plan that would have allowed Israel to keep them all — even those deep inside the West Bank.
Although the Trump plan has been scrapped, the lasting legacy of construction will make it even harder to create a viable Palestinian state. President Joe Biden's administration supports the two-state solution but has given no indication on how it plans to promote it.
The huge number of projects in the pipeline, along with massive development of settlement infrastructure, means Biden would likely need to rein in Israel to keep the two-state option alive. While Biden has condemned settlement activity, U.S. officials have shown no appetite for such a clash as they confront more urgent problems. These include the coronavirus crisis, tensions with China and attempting to revive the international nuclear deal with Iran — another major sticking point with Israel.
At the same time, Israel will likely continue to be led by a settlement hawk. In the wake of yet another inconclusive Israeli election, either Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or one of his right-wing challengers is poised to head the government, making a construction slowdown improbable.
Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran Palestinian spokeswoman, called the Trump administration a "partner in crime" with Netanyahu. She said Biden would have to go beyond traditional condemnations and take "very serious steps of accountability" to make a difference.
"It needs a bit of courage and backbone and willingness to invest," she said.
According to Peace Now, an anti-settlement watchdog group, Israel built over 9,200 new homes in the West Bank during the Trump presidency. On an annual average, that was roughly a 28% increase over the level of construction during the Obama administration, which pressed Israel to rein in building.
Perhaps even more significant was the location of the construction. According to Peace Now, 63% of the homes built last year were in outlying settlements that would likely be evacuated in any peace agreement. Over 10% of the construction in recent years took place in isolated outposts that are not officially authorized, but quietly encouraged by the Israeli government.
"What we're seeing is the ongoing policy of de facto annexation," said Hagit Ofran, a Peace Now researcher. "Israel is doing its utmost to annex the West Bank and to treat it as if it's part of Israel without leaving a scope for a Palestinian state."
Israel has also laid the groundwork for a massive construction boom in the years to come, advancing plans for 12,159 settler homes in 2020. That was the highest number since Peace Now started collecting data in 2012. It usually takes one to three years for construction to begin after a project has been approved.
Unlike his immediate predecessors, who largely confined settlement construction to major blocs that Israel expects to keep in any peace agreement, Netanyahu has encouraged construction in remote areas deep inside the West Bank, further scrambling any potential blueprint for resolving the conflict.
Settler advocates have repeatedly said that it would take several years for Trump's support to manifest in actual construction. Peace Now said that trend is now in its early stages and expected to gain steam.
"2020 was really the first year where everything that was being built was more or less because of what was approved at the beginning of the Trump presidency," said Peace Now spokesman Brian Reeves. "It's the settlement approvals that are actually more important than construction."
Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip — territories the Palestinians want for their future state — in the 1967 Mideast war. It withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but has cemented its control over east Jerusalem — which it unilaterally annexed — and the West Bank.
Nearly 500,000 Israeli settlers live in some 130 settlements and dozens of unauthorized outposts, according to official figures. That amounts to roughly 15% of the total population in the West Bank. In addition, over 200,000 Jewish Israelis live in east Jerusalem, which is also home to over 300,000 Palestinians.
The Biden administration says it is opposed to any actions by Israel or the Palestinians that harm peace efforts. "We believe, when it comes to settlement activity, that Israel should refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and that undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution," State Department spokesman Ned Price said this month.
Continued settlement growth could meanwhile bolster the case against Israel at the International Criminal Court, which launched an investigation into possible war crimes in the Palestinian territories last month. Israel appears to be vulnerable on the settlement issue because international law forbids the transfer of civilians into lands seized by force.
Israel and its Western allies have rejected it as baseless and biased. Israel is not a member of the court, but any potential ICC warrants could put Israeli officials at risk of arrest abroad.
The settlements are scattered across the West Bank, running the gamut from small hilltop clusters of tents and mobile homes to full-fledged towns with residential neighborhoods, shopping malls and in one case, a university. Every Israeli government has presided over the expansion of settlements, even at the height of the peace process in the 1990s.
The Palestinians view the settlements as a violation of international law and an obstacle to peace, a position with wide international support. Israel considers the West Bank to be the historical and biblical heartland of the Jewish people and says any partition should be agreed on in negotiations.
The two sides have not held serious talks in more than a decade, in part because the Palestinians view the continued expansion of settlements as a sign of bad faith.
Trump took unprecedented steps to support Israel's territorial claims, including recognizing Jerusalem as its capital and moving the U.S. Embassy there. His Mideast plan, which overwhelmingly favored Israel, was adamantly rejected by the Palestinians.
Trump's Mideast team was led by prominent supporters of the settlements and maintained close ties to settlement leaders throughout his tenure.
He remains popular in Efrat, a built-up settlement in the rolling hills south of Jerusalem that is expanding toward the north into the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Bethlehem.
"You keep using the term settlement," said Moti Kellner, a retiree who has lived in the area since 1986. "Walk around, does this look like something that's a camp, with tents and settling? It's a city!" He described Trump's policies as "very good, if they're not overturned."
Efrat's mayor, Oded Revivi, says Trump's legacy can be seen more in the increased approval of projects than in actual construction.
"When Trump got elected, the table was basically empty, with no building plans which were approved," he said. More importantly, he credits Trump with accepting the legitimacy of settlements, "instead of battling with the reality that has been created on the ground."
THE FEAR OF LOSING YOUR PLACE
Thousands of Palestinians work in the settlements, where wages are much higher than in areas administered by the Palestinian Authority, and on a personal basis, many get along well with their Jewish employers and co-workers.
"We do know how to live alongside one another, we do know how to build a peaceful relationship," says Revivi.
But most Palestinians view the growth of settlements as a slow and steady encroachment — not only on their hopes for a state, but on their immediate surroundings. As the years roll by, they watch as the gated settlements spill down hillsides, roads are closed or diverted, and terraced olive groves and spring-fed valleys come to feel like hostile territory.
Most Palestinians in the West Bank live in cities like Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus and Hebron, which are administered by the Palestinian Authority under interim peace agreements signed in the 1990s. Those cities are all largely surrounded by settlements, settlement infrastructure and closed military zones. Hebron has a Jewish settlement in the heart of its Old City.
Palestinians know to steer clear of settlements. Farmers who tend lands near them risk being beaten or pelted with rocks by the so-called Hilltop Youth and other Jewish extremists. Rights groups have documented dozens of attacks in recent months and say the Israeli military often turns a blind eye. Palestinians have also carried out attacks inside settlements, including the killing of a mother of six who was out jogging in December.
Around a kilometer (mile) north of Efrat, in an area administered by the PA, is a cultural and historical site popularly known as Solomon's Pools, a network of spring-fed stone reservoirs and canals with ruins dating back more than 2,000 years.
Every few months, dozens of settlers — escorted by Israeli troops — break into the site and force out Palestinian visitors or renovation workers, according to George Bossous, CEO of the company that manages the site and an adjacent convention center.
"You always fear that you are losing more and more of your place," he said. "To live together means you need to take care of everyone and give rights for all."
Fatima Brijiyah heads the local council in al-Masara, a Palestinian village southeast of Efrat. The 70-year-old grandmother remembers wandering its hills in her youth, when she and her brother would ride on their father's donkey when he went to fetch water from a nearby well.
The well is still there, but she says it's too close to the settlement for Palestinians to visit it safely.
"You feel the pain of not being able to go there now, even just to look," she said. "You feel that everything about the occupation is wrong."
POINT OF NO RETURN?
Some critics say the U.S. focus on managing the conflict instead of resolving it has led to a point of no return. They say that there are so many settlements across the West Bank that it is impossible to create a viable Palestinian state. Others argue that Israel has become a single apartheid state in which millions of Palestinians are denied basic rights afforded to Jews.
Peace Now says that — at least in a logistical sense — a partition deal remains possible.
Under a two-state solution based on past proposals, up to 80% of the settlers could stay where they are. Many of the largest settlements are close to the 1967 lines and could be incorporated into Israel in mutually agreed land swaps.
That means at least 100,000 Jewish settlers, and likely more, would have to relocate or live inside a Palestinian state. Some 2 million Palestinians live inside Israel, where they have citizenship, including the right to vote.
"From a logistical standpoint, it's very possible," Reeves said. "From a political standpoint, that's where the trick is."
Most experts agree that a negotiated two-state solution would require an Israeli government with a mandate to make historic concessions, a united Palestinian leadership able to do the same and a powerful external mediator like the U.S. that could strong-arm both sides.
None of those three elements exist now or will in the foreseeable future.
Israelis are deeply divided over Netanyahu's leadership, but a strong majority appears to support the settlements and are opposed to a Palestinian state. Those voters back right-wing parties that won 72 seats in the 120-member Knesset last month.
The Palestinians are geographically and political divided between the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Islamic militant group Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians have not held a vote in more than 15 years, and elections planned for the coming months could be called off.
The last five U.S. presidents have tried and failed to resolve the conflict. The Obama administration scolded Israel over its settlements, while Trump unabashedly supported them. Neither made any headway in resolving the conflict with the Palestinians.
Biden, who has devoted much of his nearly 50-year political career to foreign policy, knows this well. His administration has signaled it hopes to manage the conflict, not resolve it.
"The question is, can there be momentum? There won't be peace, but can there be momentum in these next four to eight years?" Reeves said.
"If there is, then I think a two-state solution is very much alive. If there's not, and there's another 100,000 settlers added, it just makes it that much harder to make peace."