Yigal Dilmoni, CEO of the Yesha Council is, in the eyes of his colleagues, “a quiet bulldozer.” He says that media headlines that focus on Israel’s political and security problems act like smokescreens, camouflaging the great building surge currently underway throughout the country.
In a conversation with The Jewish Press, he predicted that by 2030, the Jewish population in Judea and Samaria will number a million residents, double what it is today.
The Jewish Press: In November, the United States altered its previous position that settlements in Judea and Samaria violated international law. What do you think caused this shift in policy?
Dilmoni: To put it simply, President Trump. The State Department of the United States has distorted the legal facts surrounding Yesha since the Six-Day War. President Trump simply ripped up the falsifications and threw them into the wastebasket of history.
According to international law, there is no difference between the areas comprising the so-called “West Bank” and the rest of Israel. In addition to the fact that the Master of the World bequeathed Eretz Yisrael to the Jews, our modern, legal right to the territory stems from the letter “Mandate for Palestine,” which the League of Nations gave England for the establishment of a national Jewish home in the full historic borders of Eretz Yisrael.
The “conquered territories” are not conquered at all. In the aftermath of the War of Independence, the Arabs occupied areas which had been clearly earmarked for us. The United Nations termed them “disputed territories,” but they were territories which belonged to us. A massive, international, anti-Israel campaign fostered the myth of Palestinian sovereignty. President Trump righteously decided to set things straight once and for all.
We often hear representatives of settlements in Yesha complain about a building freeze, but when I drive around the region, I see construction in almost every community.
Building is continuing all the time throughout Judea, Samaria, and the Jordan Valley – just as it should – especially now that the United States has recognized that settlement in the area does not violate international law.
During the Obama administration in Washington, Israel was pressured into imposing a stringent building freeze in the settlements. Building plans weren’t approved, so construction ceased. But now, thank G-d, President Trump has opened the door to renewed development almost everywhere you look.
The revitalized construction isn’t enough to keep up with the demand for housing since ever-increasing numbers of people – literally thousands – are signing up to live in Yesha communities. The Yesha Council is constantly lobbying the Prime Minister’s Office and the defense minister to give a green light to all the projects now being approved and to those that have been on hold for years.
Recently, I gave a visitor to Israel a mini tour of the settlements. I was happy to see construction in Efrat, Bet-El, Shilo, and Har Bracha. Can you cite some construction statistics?
In 2012, construction began on 1,200 new housing units; in 2014, construction began on 1,600 units; in 2018, the figure rose to 2,100; and while we don’t yet have the exact number for 2019, there’s been a significant increase. Also, since President Trump took office, 10 times the number of building projects have received approval than in the years preceding his election.
What about infrastructure and roads?
For too many years, no progress was made in this crucial area, partly because of pressure from Washington and partly because of Israeli governments who felt Yesha might be a bargaining chip that could be given away for a promise of peace, so why waste money developing the area?
That attitude has changed, Baruch Hashem, and many government departments have formulated plans for the continued growth of the settlements. On Sunday, Transportation Minister Smotrich announced that these plans, and other proposed projects submitted by the Yesha Council, have been officially included in the State of Israel’s Master Plan for the Future, covering the next 25 years. This is a loud and clear statement that Judea and Samaria are not only on the map today, but also for the decades to come.
Already, work is underway on a new highway from Gush Etzion to Hevron, and from Efrat to Jerusalem, including a new tunnel and bridge leading into the city to eliminate the frequent traffic slowdowns. Efrat is expected to double its population in the next few years due to massive building in its new northern neighborhoods, and the roadwork is underway to meet the challenge.
What about to the north from the Ariel Junction toward Yitzhar, Har Bracha, Itamar, and Elon Moreh? Driving through the Arab village of Huwara is like driving through Ramallah.
Plans for a by-pass road are completed and await final approval and budgeting. The highway will boost security, cut down travel time dramatically, and create a housing boom in the area. The drive to Tel Aviv will be reduced by a third. Also, highway expansion is underway from the Shilat Junction at Modiin to the charedi city of Modiin Illit, the largest settlement in Yesha.
A new highway is planned for the route serving Karnei Shomron and Kedumin, and Route 60, from Adam to Kfar Tapuch, will be turned into a real highway instead of a bumpy, unlit, roller-coaster ride of vicious curves with reckless Arab drivers who have caused hundreds of deadly accidents.
Already, the newly-opened tunnel and bypass at the dangerous and traffic-jammed Adam Junction, for which we lobbied from one government to the next, has been hailed as a great blessing. Plans have also been drawn to widen the dangerously narrow Jordan Valley highway.
Settlers often complain that Yesha roads are not sufficiently guarded by the police, which not only poses security problems, but also allows Arab motorists to drive at life-threatening speeds.
There is definitely a shortage of police vehicles patrolling the roads. The Yesha Council has loudly campaigned in all of the appropriate offices of the Ministry of Internal Security and the Israel Police Department, and the situation is improving.
One major problem is that the Arabs who live in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority are under the jurisdiction of the local transportation bureaus where requirements for obtaining a driver’s license, and standards of car registration and safety, are far lower than ours. Israel doesn’t control the number of classes a Palestinian driver must take, or the cancellation of licenses for repeated traffic offenders, or whether a driver has a license at all.
In this regard, the so-called “West Bank” truly resembles the Wild West.
I have friends in Yesha who complain about electric outages and poor water pressure.
For decades, these two problems have been ignored. The growth of the settlements, and the Arab population, put a drain on the existing, antiquated systems. We are ready to begin a general overhaul to provide improved water and electric services to the area.
What can the Yesha Council do to take advantage of President Trump’s unsurpassed support for Israel, as exemplified by his recognition of Israel’s authority over the Golan Heights?
There’s no question that we are facing a window of opportunities. The Yesha Council pressures the Israeli government as much as it can, but the government has to carry the ball. Fortunately, today, the cabinet line-up has never been better. Bibi has promised to support the settlements, and, by and large, he has kept his word.
His official annexation of the Jordan Valley demonstrates the sincerity of his Zionist vision. Furthermore, his choice of Naftali Bennett as the new defense minister is not only a significant plus for Israel’s military posture; he is a true friend of the settlement movement.
Remember, just a few years ago, before he entered politics, he headed the Yesha Council himself. Already he has approved renewed Jewish settlement in the old Jewish market of Hevron, which was held up for years. Last week, our new Yesha Council chairman, David Elhayani, took him on a tour of the Jordan Valley and Naftali promised to crack down on the illegal Arab squatters who have been overrunning tracts of land belonging to the state.
When we marked on a large map all the areas of illegal Arab building in Yesha, he promised that he would take the necessary measures to deal with the ever-spreading land grab, saying that the days of turning a blind eye to illegal Arab and Bedouin expansion and building were over.
Since the Defense Ministry is the official administrative authority over the so-called “territories,” he has the jurisdiction and power to reverse a situation that has been catastrophically neglected due to governmental weakness and the vetoes of past American administrations.
We have to correct this illegal encroachment while we have the opportunity. Otherwise, when we look to expand Jewish settlement, there will be no vacant tracts left.
How did successive Israeli governments allow the situation to reach this point?
The simplest explanation is that we were looking in other directions, busy with other national issues and goals. As the saying goes, “When the cats are away, the mice will play.”
You can’t watch every hillside and valley. Overnight, the Arabs and Bedouins erect a few tents and shacks on a piece of deserted land, then claim that their grandparents lived there for hundreds of years. If we try to remove them, leftist organizations protest the case in court, and the process can drag on for years. Hundreds of cases like this are pending in court.
Are you satisfied with the level of security in Yesha?
Overall, yes. The IDF and the Shabak do excellent work protecting the settlements. The security services foiled over 500 terrorist attacks last year. Every night, a score of potential terrorists are arrested. Many successes of our special anti-terror units are never publicized.
It isn’t an easy mission with so many Arabs in the area, including Palestinian Authority-controlled cities filled with weapons and terrorist cells.
The Arabs also travel on our roads, exacerbating the complexity of the situation. Occasionally, terrorists succeed in carrying out their satanic attacks. I won’t pretend that people don’t worry when driving home at night, but I am not sure that their worry is any greater than the Jews of Monsey or Brooklyn.
All in all, the residents of Yesha enjoy a high quality of life, where people help one another, and children walk around freely by themselves.
Today, approximately 450,000 people live in Yesha, a third of them charedim, a third secular, and a third dati-leumi. As I mentioned, we can’t keep up with the demand for housing. Every settlement has a long waiting list of hopeful newcomers.
While the annual rate of Jewish population growth in Israel is 2.1 percent, the communities of Yesha boast an annual growth rate of 4.4 percent. Our birthrate is also sky high, with many settlements out-babying Bnei Brak and Meah Shearim. Those figures speak for themselves. In another 10 years, we are going to be known as “Gush Dan East.”