JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Jewish settlement of the West Bank could triple to one million people despite Western pressure to curb the growth of enclaves in occupied land, says a leader of the Israeli settlers’ council.
“It’s totally viable to envisage a million Jews living in Judea and Samaria,” said Naftali Bennett, using biblical names for the West Bank, where 2.5 million Palestinians aspire to create their own state, along with 1.5 million in Gaza.
“We’re doing everything in our power to unfreeze the freeze,” said Bennett, in an interview with Reuters. The computer software developer took office this month as director of the YESHA (Judea, Samaria and Gaza) council.
He was referring to the temporary halt to construction ordered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last November in hopes of persuading Palestinians to relaunch peace talks, a gesture dismissed as insufficient by Palestinian leaders.
“It would be a great mistake to continue this freeze,” Bennett said. “Jews can build in New York, Moscow and Paris, but in our own land we can’t build? That’s nuts,” he said.
World powers view settlements as illegal under international law, including the Geneva Conventions. They also say Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and surrounding areas is illegal.
Israeli troops last week shot dead two Palestinian youths during a West Bank protest against Jewish settlement.
The Palestinians reject Netanyahu’s limited building hiatus because it excludes East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want for a capital of their future state. Israel says Jerusalem is its capital and will never be divided.
Once a senior aide to Netanyahu before last year’s election, Bennett, 37, is the first settler director who doesn’t live in any of the enclaves built on land Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war. He sees this as a public relations advantage.
The settlers’ aims will complicate Netanyahu’s talks this week with President Barack Obama in Washington. The Israeli leader has already said there will be no backing down on Jerusalem development.
The “message we’re reaching out to the Israeli public,” says Bennett, is there should be no distinction between Israel and conquered land that settlers see as a biblical birthright.
“I don’t see any difference between Judea and Samaria and the rest of the country,” he says.
Renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence has turned a more critical public eye on the settlers, in Israel and abroad.
While Netanyahu’s pro-settler ruling coalition has strong public backing, many still hope for a future peace deal and see the settlers — particularly those involved in violence with Palestinians — as damaging that possibility.
Bennett accused U.S. President Barack Obama of instigating violence by putting pressure on Israel on the Jerusalem issue.
“The Arabs are leaning back and saying: Well, if Obama is demanding to negotiate about Jerusalem, we’ve got to spark this and turn this into a whole huge crisis. And that’s what has happened,” he said.
For security reasons alone, Israel cannot afford to withdraw from the West Bank, he says, arguing that withdrawal would permit Palestinian Islamic militants to fire rockets at Tel Aviv from the territory, as they do from Gaza into southern Israel.
Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Samia Nakhoul