Secular Israelis Flock to West Bank Settlements in Search of Good, Cheap Life

Who wouldn’t want a great house and a nice backyard for only a million shekels? This is how Karnei Shomron, Beit Arye, Ariel and Kiryat Arba became legitimate real estate attractions for young – and secular – Israeli families

Gili Melnitcki
Gili Melnitcki
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A house in the West Bank settlement of Halamish
A house in the West Bank settlement of HalamishCredit: Tomer Applebaum
Gili Melnitcki
Gili Melnitcki

Lior Ben-Hamo moved to a community located in Samaria, beyond the Green Line in the West Bank, after her husband started studying construction engineering at Ariel University. “The deal was that we would come here for a predetermined period and then take off,” relates 30-year-old Ben-Hamo. But despite the fact that the couple owned an apartment in Afula, they realized, shortly after arriving in the settlement of Karnei Shomron, that they were not leaving.

“We fell in love with the place. On the one hand, we had a large yard and there were fresh-water springs within walking distance, like the ones we knew in northern Israel. And on the other, there was the proximity to central Israel with the option of working in Rishon Letzion or getting to a meeting in Tel Aviv within 35-45 minutes,” Ben-Hamo explains.

“We’re living the dream of our friends who live in rental apartments inside the Green Line [Israel’s pre-1967 borders]. They want a quality of life like we have but are afraid of being tainted with the label of being settlers. Some of them can’t accept it for ideological reasons. While they are saving up money in order to buy a home, I fly abroad five times a year.”

Ben-Hamo says her parents freaked out at first, grappling with the fact that she and her husband had chosen to live in a settlement in the occupied territories – especially given the fact that she’d grown up in a secular-communal setting. “But gradually they started coming here, and saw the ‘traditional-lite’ lifestyle here, with enough space for everyone to do what they want to do. They realized that there is a quality of life and a school system here that we could never provide for our children in Afula.”

The Karnei Shomron settlement. The main rise in housing prices is seen at settlements that are close to larger cities within the Green Line. Credit: Eyal Toueg

Four years ago, the young Ben-Hamo family purchased a house in Karnei Shomron on paper, for 1.1 million shekels ($320,000). Today they live in a 7-room duplex with a garden, worth almost 1.6 million shekels on the market, in one of the settlement’s more upscale neighborhoods.

“We sold our apartment in Afula just before the rising prices were halted there, due to the launching of the new Mechir Lamishtaken affordable housing scheme, which inundated the local real estate market. With that capital we bought our house, and we even had something left over. Now we see some of our neighbors waiting to sell their properties in anticipation of prices rising to 1.7-1.8 million shekels. We see people from central Israel coming here to improve their standard of living, including many young people who grew up in this area and wish to return here. There is no reason to think this trend will stop.”

Still, Ben-Hamo wants to qualify this idyllic picture: “When I drive near the settlement in the dark, I worry. There have been a few incidents on the road. Driving here is not like in Petah Tikva, but we believe this is our land and it’s right for us to live here – even from an ideological perspective. Given that, ever since we moved here, I understand more how our lives here are intertwined with those of the Palestinians. I live alongside them, shop in the same places. They work in my neighborhood, in construction. When they did upgrades on our home, they had lunch with my children. My move here increased my empathy for their complicated situation. They aren’t going anywhere, and I don’t want them to. Life here is an excellent lesson in living together, with mutual respect.”

The rising real estate prices in Karnei Shomron are part of a similar trend in other West Bank locales – a trend that’s particularly noticeable in settlements that are close to larger cities within the Green Line, such as Modi’in, Jerusalem and Kfar Sava, and among the ultra-Orthodox cities that are now providing solutions for the dire housing shortages of those communities within Israel proper. All this has led to a gap between real estate prices deep inside Israel, where there is no new construction but there are still properties that go for 500,000 to 600,000 shekels, and the situation in the settlements where prices have risen just as high as those in the central part of the country.

In Givon Hahadasha, north of Jerusalem, a single-family home built in 1995 was sold earlier this year for no less than 2.9 million shekels. A year ago, one deal closed in the same settlement crossed the 3-million-shekel threshold. In the settlement of Nili, near Modi’in, a 5-room apartment in a two-family house cost 2.4 million shekels last year, and a similar price was paid two months ago for a 6-room apartment in the settlement of Beit Arye.

A different return on your money

The Ben-Hamos embody a growing trend among young Israeli families who have been driven to seek alternative housing in the West Bank by high housing prices, long hours spent in traffic jams and the absence of job opportunities in outlying parts of the country. Over the last two years, in which housing prices were stable within the Green Line, they have risen in the territories, making up for gaps that had been created over the years. It seems that the campaign against rising prices, waged by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, passed over the West Bank.

Kahlon did manage to stem the tide of rising prices across the country, and for a few months in 2018 he even succeeded to reverse the trend, but overall, nationwide, housing prices rose by 14% between 2015 and 2018, according to Bank of Israel figures. Contrary to what might have been expected, the substantial uptick occurred not in the major cities but in the territories.

“The place that stands out in recent years is [the West Bank city of] Ariel,” says Eitan Singer, CEO of Madlan, the consumer-oriented real estate website. “Between 2015 and 2018, the prices of 4- and 5-room apartments spiked by 27% there. One reason for the high demand is the accreditation of Ariel College as a university in 2012, with its attendant growing ecosystem. This has affected the rental market and the demand for housing in the area. In comparable [Israeli] cities such as Ra’anana and Kiryat Ono, prices did not rise as much as in Ariel.”

Lior Ben-Hamo. 'We fell in love with the place.'Credit: Eyal Toueg

According to land appraiser and jurist Nehama Bogin, who surveyed prices in the territories for TheMarker, “settlements that once were outside the consensus are now branded and marketed as communities lying in the country’s center. The locales that countered the stagnation and minor increases in real estate prices last year were Ariel and Beit El, and the larger cities in Judea and Samaria – led by Modi’in Ilit and Betar Ilit. Orthodox cities have a high natural population growth, with rabbis encouraging people to move there. The situation there reflects the demand for housing solutions for those communities,” Bogin explains.

But it’s not only the birth rate of the ultra-Orthodox or Zionist-religious communities that has contributed to the current real estate situation in the West Bank. Israel’s secular population is also playing a role there, as dreams of purchasing an apartment within the Green Line have receded in the last decade.

“The return on your money in Judea and Samaria is significantly different,” says Bogin.

Adds Singer, of Madlan: “The sum of money that will get you an old and crowded apartment in the center is enough for a much bigger house with a garden beyond the Green Line. A detached house and garden look particularly attractive in comparison to the dense construction that characterizes locales within the Green Line.”

Lior Ben-Hamo's new home in Karnei Shomron. A large yard and there were fresh-water springs within walking distance.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Blurring the Green Line

“There is a trend toward expanding the communities [in the West Bank], and no one is interested anymore in left or right. The determining factor is the quality of life,” observes Yair Cohen, CEO of Avney Derech, which builds housing in Beit El and Karnei Shomron. “Most people realize that these settlements will not be evacuated [in any future peace agreement], so the Green Line is becoming blurred. There still aren’t secular people in Beit El or Kiryat Arba [outside Hebron], but there are couples looking at a 3-room apartment in Kfar Sava for 1.7 million shekels who may invest that sum in a 5-room house with a garden in Alfei Menashe or Karnei Shomron.”

According to Zvi Fuchs, CEO and co-owner of Z.F. Building Company, which has been operating in the territories for over 25 years, the Israeli banking system – which in the past made it difficult to obtain mortgages for properties across the Green Line, claiming that the communities were insecure and that the properties could not be registered in the official land registry – have also begun to fall in line with the current trend.

“A decade ago, some of the larger banks were unwilling to take the risks associated with construction in these settlements, but in major settlements there is no longer a problem,” says Fuchs. “In fact, the trend has changed, with banks chasing people moving to these areas, who are considered well-educated and reliable.”

One also cannot ignore, in this context, the legitimization the government has given to some settlements by means of its promotion of the Mechir Lemishtaken program. This lottery-based scheme has offered an incentive for banks to give mortgages for purchasing the apartments that it markets, and they have attracted a lot of interest among new families who’ve decided to move over the Green Line.

In the last four years, more than 3,000 housing units were marketed as part of Mechir Lemishtaken via bids put out by the Israel Land Authority in Ma’aleh Adumim, Betar Ilit, Beit El, Ma’aleh Efraim. Alfei Menashe, Karnei Shomron, Beit Arye, Immanuel and Ariel.

According to Yigal Lahav, the head of the Karnei Shomron Regional Council, “developers who operate in Judea and Samaria know that when they begin a project, they can sell 60% of their apartments within 4-5 months, and that apartments can double their value in 4-5 years. Everyone wants to be here.”

In conversations with young families who recently moved to central West Bank locales, it turns out that the ideology and the settlers’ zeal which once fueled the settlement enterprise in these areas are no longer an issue.

An ad for new housing in the Beit Arye settlement. Credit: רמי היפש

“A settler ideology? It hardly exists among these new families. People with that sort of ideology go to the Gaza border or the Arava. That’s where you can find ideology,” says Eliran Iluz, a community manager in Karnei Shomron, who lives in the Shaked settlement in the northern West Bank.

Iluz, who defines himself as a religious Zionist, had lived in a religious settlement in the past. He says he visited 60 settlements before deciding on Shaked, which is mostly secular. “I don’t believe in homogeneity, but in diversity and in recognizing that there are others who live differently than I do, but who can live with me.”

Of course there can be friction between secular and religious members of such communities, as he points out.

“Three months after I started working in Karnei Shomron, a performance was scheduled by my predecessor for [singer-songwriter] Keren Peles” says Iluz. “When the event was advertised, arguments erupted regarding a performance by a woman [considered taboo among some observant people]. There were those who said it bothered them, since she had recently given a provocative performance. For a few days there was some turmoil, but 1,500 people came to see her, creating facts on the ground, even though 65% of the community are people who are religious, to various degrees. My main task was to encourage compromise over a contentious issue.”

Ariel university. 'One reason for the high demand is the accreditation of Ariel College as a university in 2012'Credit: Moti Milrod

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