US President Donald Trump (L) and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after delivering press statements before an official diner in Jerusalem on May 22, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGANMANDEL NGAN/AFP/ Image Credit: AFP - Getty Images

Occupied Jerusalem: With little resistance from a friendly White House, Israel has launched a new colony push in the Occupied West Bank since President Donald Trump took office, laying the groundwork for what could be the largest construction binge in years, according to data obtained by The Associated Press.

The figures, gathered from official government sources by the anti-colony monitoring group Peace Now, show an increase in building in 2018 and a sharp spike in planning for future construction.

This trend, highlighted last week when an Israeli committee advanced plans for thousands more colony homes on Palestinian land it has occupied, has only deepened Palestinian mistrust of the Trump administration as it says it is preparing to roll out a Mideast peace plan.

Each new colony expansion further diminishes the chances of setting up a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Israeli free-reign

Both supporters and opponents of colonies confirm a change in atmosphere since early 2017, when Trump took over from Barack Obama, whose administration had tried to rein in construction.

“The feeling of the (Israeli) government is everything is allowed, that the time to do things is now because the (US) administration is the most pro-colony you can ever have,” said Hagit Ofran of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch programme.

Peace Now uses several measurements of colony activity. These include “plans,” or the early bureaucratic stages of preparing a project” “tenders,” when bids are solicited from contractors to do the work” and “construction starts,” when the building actually begins.

Each of these figures tells a different story. While construction starts give a snapshot of the current level of colony activity, they reflect decisions made years ago. In contrast, the planning and tender stages are seen as forward-looking indicators of a government’s intentions.

The data compiled by Peace Now showed a drop in construction starts during Trump’s first year in office, to 1,643 units in 2017 from 3,066 units the previous year.

This drop appears to reflect the lingering effect of reduced planning during the final two years of the Obama administration.

But the data for the first nine months of 2018 indicate the beginning of a Trump effect, with construction starts 20 per cent higher than the same period a year earlier.

Israel has launched a new colony push in the Occupied West Bank since President Donald Trump took oce, Image Credit: AP

These trends are even more evident when looking at the planning process.

In 2017, plans were advanced to build 6,712 new colony homes, roughly 2.5 times the 2016 level. In 2018, plans for an additional 5,618 units were advanced, nearly half of which were processed last week alone.

Together, these numbers are the highest level of planning seen since 2013.

At that time, Israel pushed forward colony construction to counter criticism of its release of Palestinian prisoners as part of then-Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace efforts.

Surge in tenders

The biggest surge in colony activity during the Trump era is in tenders- projects that are ready to be launched.

In 2017, 3,154 tenders were issued, up from just 42 during Obama’s final year in office. In 2018, that number rose to over 3,800, the highest number by far since Peace Now started compiling the data in 2002.

This sets the stage for a huge jump in construction in the near future.

“There’s definitely a change of atmosphere. There’s definitely a change of winds,” said Oded Revivi, mayor of Efrat, a major colony near Occupied Jerusalem, and the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha colony council.

Revivi said that Obama pressured Israel into greatly curtailing colony activity.

Now, he said, Israel is trying to make up for lost time.

“Basically what you’re seeing now is the statistics are trying to catch up to the needs that were built up during the eight years of the Obama administration, when everything was in a standstill,” Revivi said.

White House Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt’s office declined comment, and State Department officials were not immediately available for comment.

Colony expansion over the years

The Palestinians and most of the international community consider Israeli colonies to be illegal and obstacles to peace. Over 400,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank, in addition to 200,000 in east Jerusalem. The Palestinians seek both areas, captured by Israel in 1967, as parts of their state.

For decades, a string of US presidents, both Republican and Democrat, condemned colony construction.

Things quickly changed when Trump took office. Trump refused to condemn colony construction and surrounded himself with advisers - including his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Ambassador to Israel David Friedman - who are Orthodox Jews with close ties to colonies.

Trump’s administration has remained largely silent as Israel has pressed ahead with its construction efforts over the past two years.

This has been welcome news to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose outgoing coalition is dominated by religious and nationalist colony sympathisers.