The Immigrants Fueling the Population Growth of West Bank Settlements

'We’ve already stopped counting the numbers, but in some, they are almost half the population,' Knesset speaker tells settler activists

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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File photo: The West Bank settlement Beit El, with the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the background, January 16, 2017.
File photo: The West Bank settlement Beit El, with the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the background, January 16, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Immigrants to Israel account for as much as half the population at some West Bank settlements, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein told settler activists attending a parliamentary committee meeting on Tuesday.

“Tens of thousands of immigrants have been warmly welcomed – not forcibly moved – to the settlements of Judea and Samaria,” he said, referring to the West Bank. “We’ve already stopped counting the numbers, but in some, they are almost half the population ... their contribution has been considerable.”

Edelstein was addressing a special session of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs on the role of immigrants in the settlement movement to mark the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War. The settlements began after Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in that war.

Edelstein, a former Soviet refusenik and member of the ruling Likud party, is an outspoken advocate of the settlement movement. A former minister of immigrant absorption, he lived until recently in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut.

The Knesset committee meeting was attended by several mayors of West Bank settlements as well as a delegation of immigrants that live across the West Bank. Most of the members of this delegation were converts from what are known as “emerging Jewish communities” – in particular the Bnei Menashe from northeast India and the Bnei Moshe, also known as the Inca Jews, from Peru. These are communities whose members, after having undergone Orthodox conversions in the early 2000s, were brought to Israel by private organizations affiliated with the religious right and moved to West Bank settlements to boost the population there.

File photo: Shai Alon, Mayor of Beit El.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Shai Alon, the mayor of Beit El, noted at the meeting that his settlement has taken in 60 Bnei Menashe families (roughly 250 people). Its total population is about 6,000. Beit El, which is relatively far from the Green Line (Israel’s internationally recognized border), holds a special place in the heart of the new U.S. administration.

Until his appointment, the new U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, had served as president of an organization that fundraises for Beit El in the United States. The parents of Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, have donated thousands of dollars to this particular settlement. Back in 2003, Trump himself wrote a check for $10,000 to benefit Beit El institutions.

Addressing the Knesset committee, a member of the Bnei Menashe, who works as a pre-school teacher in Beit El, complained about the many hardships her community of immigrants faces.

According to Alon, the Beit El mayor, a disproportionately large share of immigrants to Israel have made their homes in the West Bank settlements. He did not provide any exact figures.

Avraham Neguise, the Ethiopian-born chairman of the committee and a member of Likud, described the West Bank settlements as a “flagship” and role model for other Israeli communities grappling with the challenges of immigrant absorption.

In her new groundbreaking study of the impact of American immigrants on the settlement movement, Oxford scholar Sara Hirschhorn estimates that about 60,000 Israelis with U.S. citizenship live in the West Bank. Her book, “City on a Hilltop,” was published by Harvard University Press last month.

Iddo Meushar, the mayor of Eli, noted at the Knesset gathering that in recent years more than 100 families from France have moved to his settlement, where they have come to account for a significant share of the population. (About 850 families live on this settlement, which, like Beit El, is far from the Green Line and considered quite radical.) “Because our community is good at mobilizing and welcoming new immigrants, the transition is always very smooth,” he said.

Eliyahu Shaviro, mayor of Ariel, one of the biggest settlements in the West Bank, told the committee that about half the population of his city is comprised of immigrants. Ariel is known to have an especially large community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who moved there primarily because of its affordable housing.

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