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Bennett slammed after calling for ‘natural’ West Bank settler growth

CM 25/08/2021 4

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Right-wing politicians slammed Prime Minister Naftali Bennett after he spoke of maintaining only “natural” West Bank settlement growth in an interview he gave to The New York Times that was published on Wednesday.
“It is totally unacceptable to speak of constraining building “according to natural growth,” Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan said in response to the interview.
Bennett told the Times that “Israel will continue the standard policy of natural growth.” He spoke in advance of his meeting Thursday in Washington with US President Joe Biden.

But Bennett’s words, intended to reassure the pro-settlement public that a freeze was not in the offing, did exactly the opposite, due to the understanding that natural growth has typically meant building to accommodate new births, but does not allow for a settler population influx from other parts of the country or abroad.
A source clarified that indeed there would not be a freeze.
 Palestinian construction workers work at a construction site in the Jewish settlement of Efrat in the West Bank, on September 29, 2020. (credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90) Palestinian construction workers work at a construction site in the Jewish settlement of Efrat in the West Bank, on September 29, 2020. (credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)
The term “natural growth” for settlements, however, was last used during the former administrations of presidents George Bush and Barack Obama to counter demands from Washington for a settlement freeze.
“Expanding settlement to the needs of natural growth means neglecting settlement development and growth of settlement,” according to MK Michal Waldiger (Religious Zionist Party).
“It is unfortunate to hear a prime minister expressing himself this way,” she said, adding that it was “twice as unfortunate when it comes to the prime minister who was previously the Yesha Council director-general and who knows how critical development of Judea and Samaria is for the security of the State of Israel.”
Waldiger noted that areas within sovereign Israel such as Ra’anana were not limited by natural growth, and that no such limit should be put on West Bank settlement development.
Throughout the 54-year history of the settlement movement, population expansion has always exceeded natural growth, particularly because the population that lived there had initially migrated from sovereign Israel.
Over time that growth rate adjusted itself, so that it was largely but never totally dependent on the birth rate.
When former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered office in 2009, the settler growth rate stood at 5.3%, almost three times that of the overall Israeli growth rate of 1.8%, according to data from the Central Bureau of Statistics.
That year the population in real numbers grew by 14,900, of which 4,400 had migrated in, according to CBS data.
The settler growth rate dropped during Netanyahu’s time in office, hitting an all-time low of 3.2% in 2019. This meant that there were only 13,800 new settlers, of whom 1,300 were migrants and the rest were births, according to the CBS.
Right-wing politicians and settler leaders have advocated for a higher growth rate by pushing for the advancement of new settlement projects.
But despite Bennett’s words in The New York Times about continued settlement construction, the Civil Administration has not advanced major plans for such building during his three months in office.
The last time major plans were advanced was in January, before Biden was sworn into office.
Bennett announced two weeks ago that he would advance plans for 2,223 settler homes prior to his Washington departure, but in the end the meeting was canceled due to a Civil Administration strike and was not rescheduled.
The Civil Administration had a high rate of building plan approvals during former US president Donald Trump’s four years in office, but work on new homes in Judea and Samaria remained low.
The COVID-19 pandemic drove those numbers down even further. In 2020, ground was broken on 1,145 homes, making it the lowest such number in close to a decade, according to the CBS.
The existing situation, with low construction numbers and without the advancement of plans, is already an atypical situation for the settlement movement and one that it is being pushed to reverse through a new surge of accelerated construction.
 View of the Israeli settlement of Yakir on June 11, 2020. (credit: SRAYA DIAMANT/FLASH90) View of the Israeli settlement of Yakir on June 11, 2020. (credit: SRAYA DIAMANT/FLASH90)
A number of settler leaders have accused Bennett, who represents the right-wing Yamina Party, of drying out the settlements. They have held protests against his policy in front of his office. On Tuesday they followed him to Ben-Gurion Airport and held a small protest as he departed.
But Yesha Council head David Elhayani, who belongs to the New Hope Party, which is a member of the coalition, said that “natural growth” was not necessarily so strictly aligned with the birth rate and could indeed also include a population influx.
“What is natural growth?” he asked. If a family has four children and they marry and want to settle in their home communities in Judea and Samaria, is that not also natural growth?”
“Natural growth” can simply be the extension of the existing situation in which the population of Judea and Samaria is based on growth from both births and population influx, Elhayani said.
“Sometimes you have to hear the words in the right way,” he said.
The maverick settler leader, who also heads the Jordan Valley Regional Council, made political waves last year when he broke ranks with Trump and Netanyahu over their support for a Palestinian state.
Of the three men, Elhayani is the only one still in office.
He was pleased therefore to hear that Bennett had no plans to support a Palestinian state or to even engage in negotiations toward one.
“That is an important statement,” he said, and “one that is not so simple for a prime minister who has both an Arab party and the left-wing Meretz Party” in his coalition to make.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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