Flying in the face of a widely reported construction boom in the West Bank, the Central Bureau of Statistics on Thursday stated that there had actually been a 72-percent drop in the number of housing starts in the settlements in 2010, compared to 2009.
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The CBS figure of 541 settler housing starts last year, the lowest such annual number in more than two decades, is the first official data to be published on the rate of Jewish West Bank building after the 10-month moratorium ended last September 26.
The report also noted a 28% drop in the number of finished homes, from 2,071 in 2009 to 1,492 in 2010.
Such reports have diplomatic implications in light of the international community’s condemnation of settlement activity and the Palestinian insistence that Israel must halt all such building before it resumes negotiations.
Since the moratorium on West Bank Jewish housing starts expired, a number of media outlets and nongovernmental groups have reported that settlers were breaking ground in the West Bank at a rate that outstripped past years.
According to Peace Now, for instance, post-moratorium settler building numbers were above and beyond an expected temporary hike in housing starts in the last quarter of 2010, given that building projects had been frozen for 10 months.
In mid-November, Peace Now reported that settlers had laid foundations for 1,126 homes since the moratorium ended. It predicted that the rapid pace would continue, so that new settler building in 2011 would exceed that of past years.
The group said the pace was above and beyond the flurry of new construction that would have been anticipated after a 10-month freeze.
Last Thursday, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry told the Security Council that work had begun on some 2,000 new settler homes in the West Bank since the moratorium ended. His figure is an internal UN one, based on a number of sources.
Unlike the CBS and Peace Now figures, it includes the months of January and February.
According to the CBS, however, there were 1,518 housing starts in 2006, 1,471 in 2007, 2,105 in 2008, 1,946 in 2009 and 541 in 2010.
The CBS figures showed that despite the moratorium, ground was broken on 114 settler homes in the first three quarters of 2010. In the fourth quarter, after the moratorium expired, ground was broken on 427 homes, of which 119 were public construction and 308 were private construction, the CBS reported on Thursday.
This 427 figure, which was significantly lower than many had expected, is within the normative range of other quarterly reports from the CBS, before the start of the moratorium.
If construction were to continue at that pace in the coming quarters, Jewish West Bank building would return to the rate that existed before the moratorium.
But Dani Dayan, who heads the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, said he expected construction numbers to drop in 2011, although he did not know how much, compared to the pre-moratorium level.
The freeze deterred and delayed building projects, Dayan said. Homeowners who had financing in November 2009, when the freeze first began, were not immediately able to re-secure those funds once the moratorium ended, he added.
“There is an uncertainty factor” that has made some homeowners pause before continuing, Dayan said.
Most significantly, he said, many of the larger settlements, including Betar Illit and Ma’aleh Adumim, are out of building permits, and as a result there can be no new building in those communities until authorization for such activity is received from the Defense Ministry.
The CBS has yet to release building data from those settlements for the last quarter of 2010, so it is impossible to analyze whether the absence of those permits has already been felt.
Dayan blamed the drop in construction on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and what he said were the government’s antisettlement policies.
The new CBS data, he said, “is an indictment of guilt against the Netanyahu government. He has the worst [record] regarding construction in Judea and Samaria.”
But even as Dayan lamented the lack of construction, Hagit Ofran of Peace Now said she stood firm in her conviction that there was a building boom in West Bank settlements.
She said further CBS reports in 2011 would support her theory.
Thursday’s report reflects only the initial data, she said; in the coming year, the CBS will continually correct the figure before arriving at a final one.
In its November release regarding the first three quarters of 2010, the CBS reported that work had begun on only 50 settlement homes, Ofran said, noting that in Thursday’s report, the number for the first three quarters of 2010 had risen to 114.
Similarly, she said, she expected that in another three months the CBS’s overall 2010 figure of 541 would more than double.
While settlers have focused on the absence of construction permits in
the larger settlements, Ofran said she had paid attention to the more
than 11,000 permits held by smaller settlements, where construction can
move forward without any government action.
Many of these permits have yet to be used, she said, adding that her concern was that they could be