WASHINGTON - The Israeli government spent well over US$533 million in sustaining Jewish settlements in the occupied territories in 2001, more than half the amount provided it by the United States as direct economic assistance during the same year, according to a report released Thursday by the Israeli Peace Now movement.
The report, which was based on publicly available data, said that the total amount of government support for the settlements in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including the costs of providing military protection for the settlers, is actually significantly higher. But how much higher cannot be determined because a breakdown of the defense budget, for example, is a state secret.
"Peace Now has found that Israel unfortunately continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars each year into the settlement movement, money that could otherwise be spent on Israel's more pressing security and economic needs," said Debra DeLee of the group's U.S. affiliate, Americans for Peace Now (APN).
Spending on the settlements only "deepens Israel's presence in the occupied territories, strains its defense capabilities, and makes it more difficult for Israel to separate itself from the Palestinians in the future," DeLee added.
The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon --which has asked President George W. Bush's administration to provide $8 billion in loan guarantees over the next five years in addition to its anticipated allotment of some $600 million in economic assistance for this year--received $838 million in U.S. economic aid in 2001, as well as more than $2 billion in military assistance and credits.
Unlike U.S economic aid to most countries, this assistance to Israel comes without strings attached, permitting the government to use it for any economic purpose it sees fit. While Bush has called on Sharon to freeze settlement activity in the interests of promoting peace, he has not gone as far as his father, George H.W. Bush, who, in the early 1990s, tied $10 billion in loan guarantees to a halt in Israeli settlement activities.
Settlements have long been a sticking point in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and even during elections, such as the current campaign in the run-up to next week's Israeli poll. The Labour Party has called for dismantling of settlements in the Gaza Strip and more isolated West Bank settlements as part of a process of withdrawal, but Sharon has ruled out any movement while the Palestinian intifada continues.
Peace Now's study attempted to paint a comprehensive picture of the amount of money spent in the territories, especially the extra government costs--for example in housing, transportation, industrial development, and local administration--of supporting the settlers and settlements that would not have to be borne if they and their communities were living inside Israel's 1967 borders.
From these figures, researchers derived the total figure of $533.6 million, of which approximately $440 million could be considered money that would not have been spent on individuals or communities within the 1967 borders. Spending allocated to the settler groups was "immeasurably larger" than the three percent of the overall Israeli population that it represents.
In addition to the costs of defending the settlers, the study was not able to account for three other key components of the state budget that are allocated to settlers and the settlements, including government subsidization of nonprofit organizations that support the settled areas; the wages of teachers and other local education-ministry employees; and other settlement-related support by government ministries that could not be separated from their general budgets.
"This means that the findings in this report should be seen as only a partial reflection of spending in the occupied territories," according to APN. "The budgets actually being spent are much higher than those that can be pinpointed."
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