x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Israeli protesters complain about cost of supporting settlements

Israel's investment in West Bank settlements remains one of the most contentious issues in Israeli politics, dividing those on the right, who support settlements, and those on the left, who oppose them.

TEL AVIV // For the past month, talk of Israel's massive funding of West Bank settlements has been off limits for the tens of thousands of Israelis protesting against the government's inadequate investment in housing, education and other areas.

But some anti-settlement activists claim the unprecedented demonstrations are ignoring a key cause of their ire - namely, the decades-long diversion of state funds to Jewish settlers at the expense of less resources being directed towards Israeli citizens within the country's recognised borders.

"The cost of the settlements - and even more so, the cost of the occupation - to the Israeli economy is huge and I am sure that without the occupation there would have been less of a crisis in housing and other issues," Hagit Ofran, a director at the anti-settlement group Peace Now, said yesterday.

Israel's investment in the settlements remains one of the most contentious issues in Israeli politics, dividing up the Israeli voter population between those on the right, who support settlements, and those on the left, who oppose them. The settlers are a significant support base for the ruling Likud party and other right wing political movements that are increasingly gaining sway among voters as prospects for peace with the Palestinians dim. Many in the political centre and left have rejected Israel's expansion of settlements in territories that Palestinians want as part of their future state.

Demonstration leaders have insisted they are remaining outside the realm of politics in order to draw as many backers as possible from across the political spectrum.

"We don't want others to say that we are with the extreme left. We have people from the left and from the right," Itzik Shmuli, the head of the Israeli student union, said last week.

While the protest was initiated in Tel Aviv, a hub for a younger and predominantly left-wing or centrist Israeli population that may oppose the occupation, it has added supporters from both the Israeli Arab community as well as from the settlement enterprise in the West Bank. All the groups have been united in their anger towards the high costs of living, especially in buying or renting homes.

But many activists say the state should shift funds from the settlements to pay for constructing public housing within Israel proper and invest more in education and other areas.

For decades, Israel has spent tens of billions of dollars to maintain its army operations in the West Bank, build roads and public institutions and subsidise housing and transportation costs as it drew over 300,000 Israelis to live there.

However, the exact figures of how much Israel invests in the settlements remain secret.

Peace Now, an anti-settlement group, in a report it released last year said Israel's government invested four times more per capita in public building in the West Bank than the national average in 2009, and twice as much per capita in West Bank municipal governments

Activists point out that home prices rose much faster within Israel's recognised borders than in the West Bank partly because of a lower proportion of funds going into public housing.

Dror Etkes, a veteran anti-settlement advocate, in a Haaretz column last month cited official statistics as showing that between 1994 and 2009, the government funded almost half of the construction in the settlements. That is significantly higher than the national average of government spending on housing in all the Israeli regions during that period, which amounted to about a fifth of the total.

According to Mr Etkes, successive governments were deliberately trying to draw more Israelis towards the settlements by driving down home prices, while doing little to help lower housing costs within Israel's recognised borders. He added that in Tel Aviv, Israel's cultural and business centre and the most attractive living location for many young Israelis, public housing for most of the 1990s and 2000s amounted to only three per cent of the total.

Haim Ramon, a former cabinet minister and a leading figure in the opposition centrist Kadima party, was one of the few prominent politicians to tie the escalating demonstrations to the settlements in recent weeks.

In an interview with the mass-selling Maariv newspaper in early August, Mr Ramon said: "The government gives per capita twice as much there as the national average. If the government had treated the rest of Israel the way it treats [the settlers] there wouldn't be a protest today."

Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha settlers' council, who last week toured the main protest tent camp on a high-end Tel Aviv street, denied that settlements receive special treatment from the government and insists that the state no longer grants housing subsidies in the West Bank.

vbekker@thenational.ae