Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that the number of West Bank settlers has grown by about 120,000 since he took office in 2009.
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But while the number is correct, the reason has little to do with the pace of construction in the settlements during his tenure. In fact, since Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, there has been less construction activity in the settlements than under any other prime minister since 1995.
Netanyahu made his statement during an internal meeting on Tuesday, in an effort to rebuff growing criticism from the right. A recording of his remarks was obtained later by Michal Shemesh, a reporter for Army Radio.
“The left accuses us that from 280,000 [settlers] we’ve risen to 400,000, and that was during years when we were told that official U.S. policy was not even one house,” Netanyahu can be heard to say.
“Praise God, this isn’t far from the truth. It’s the biggest increase in our world.”
This increase, however, isn’t because Netanyahu has gone on a building spree. According to data from the Housing and Construction Ministry, an average of 1,554 houses a year were built in the settlements from 2009 to 2014 — fewer than under any of his recent predecessors.
By comparison, the annual average was 1,881 under Ariel Sharon and 1,774 under Ehud Olmert. As for Ehud Barak, during his single full year as prime minister, in 2000, he built a whopping 5,000 homes in the settlements.
The current rate is also only about half the pace of settlement construction during Netanyahu’s first term of office, in 1996-99, when it averaged almost 3,000 homes a year.
So why has the number of settlers increased so sharply? Due to natural growth, especially in the two ultra-Orthodox towns of Betar Ilit and Modi’in Ilit. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the fertility rate in the settlements is 5.01 children per woman, which is far higher than anywhere else in Israel. In the northern district, which ranks second, the fertility rate is just 3.91 children per woman.
Thus in 2013, for instance, 12,129 children were born in the settlements and only 535 people died. This is also a very low death rate, which stems from the fact that the settler population is relatively young.
The statistics bureau’s data also shows that 74 percent of the growth in the number of settlers from 2009-2014 stemmed from natural increase. In 2014, for instance, the number of settlers rose by 14,200.
Of these, 11,800, or 83 percent of the growth, was a result of natural increase (births minus deaths) and only 2,400 the result of net migration to the settlements. In 2012, by contrast, natural increase accounted for only 68 percent of the total increase in the number of settlers.