Emboldened by Israeli PM and Trump, Israeli settlers keep encroaching on West Bank

By: AFP      Published: 03:23 PM, 28 Feb, 2020
Emboldened by Israeli PM and Trump, Israeli settlers keep encroaching on West Bank

Around the time US President Donald Trump took office, a group of Israeli families more than 10,000 kilometres (6,000 miles) away started a wildcat settlement near the Dead Sea in the Palestinians territories.

In the three years since, it has become the outpost of Kedem Arava, home to 40 families. It is believed to be the first Israeli settlement of the Trump era, and one of the dozens built under the decade-long rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Kerem Arava, protected by the Israeli army and guarded by razor wire, is a close-knit community of mostly young Israelis.

"The oldest person here is 37," said Lev, gesturing to the small cluster of cabins that forms part of the vanguard of  Israel's emboldened Jewish settler movement. 

Israel on Monday faces its third election within less than a year, and embattled Netanyahu is banking on the support of the more than 450,000 settlers for his political survival.

In the decade since he took power, the settler population has shot up by 50 percent -- with growth spiking since his ally Trump moved into the White House in 2017.

Peace Now, an Israel non-government group that opposes the settlements, said around 20,000 new settlement housing units were constructed during the 'Netanyahu decade'.

Since Trump took power, according to the group, the number of new homes approved for construction tripled in the first year and has remained at roughly that level since.

Israeli officials say they aim to reach one million settlement residents in coming years.

Far-right Defence Minister Naftali Bennett this week announced nearly 1,800 new homes in West Bank settlements.

"We don't wait, we act," Bennett said in a statement. "We will not give an inch of the land of Israel to the Arabs, but for that, we must build there."

Under the Trump plan, small places like Kedem Arava could become towns or even cities -- like Ariel, which boasts a university, or a region like Gush Etzion which is now seeing its third generation of residents born.

Having grown up in settlements, a resident, Eliaz Cohen, said when he was younger, relations with neighbouring Palestinians were better.

"We had an open connection -- not very close and warm, but there were connections."

But after a Palestinian uprising and the construction of an Israeli security barrier in the early 2000s "a nine-metre fence was built in our hearts and souls, Israelis and Palestinians", he said.

Under Trump's controversial peace plan, the more than 130 West Bank settlements would become officially part of Israel.

For the Palestinians, European countries and the United Nations, they threaten the possibility of a viable Palestinian state.

Israel, however, only distinguishes between those it sanctions and those it doesn't -- so-called outposts or wildcat settlements.

Peace Now, an Israel non-government group that opposes the settlements, said around 20,000 new settlement housing units were constructed during the 'Netanyahu decade'.

Since Trump took power, according to the group, the number of new homes approved for construction tripled in the first year and has remained at roughly that level since.

Israeli officials say they aim to reach one million settlement residents in coming years.

Far-right Defence Minister Naftali Bennett this week announced nearly 1,800 new homes in West Bank settlements.

"We don't wait, we act," Bennett said in a statement. "We will not give an inch of the land of Israel to the Arabs, but for that, we must build there."

Under the Trump plan, small places like Kedem Arava could become towns or even cities -- like Ariel, which boasts a university, or a region like Gush Etzion which is now seeing its third generation of residents born.

Having grown up in settlements, a resident, Eliaz Cohen, said when he was younger, relations with neighbouring Palestinians were better.

"We had an open connection -- not very close and warm, but there were connections."

But after a Palestinian uprising and the construction of an Israeli security barrier in the early 2000s "a nine-metre fence was built in our hearts and souls, Israelis and Palestinians", he said.

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