How Many Settlers Really Live in the West Bank? Haaretz Investigation Reveals

Over the last 30 years, eight new settlements have been built and Israeli population in West Bank grew by 330,000 ■ The settlements, from 1967 till today - an in-depth analysis

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Israeli Jew and Palestinian look at West Bank separation barrier in Jerusalem
Israeli Jew and Palestinian look at West Bank separation barrier in JerusalemCredit: Olivier Fitoussi
Yotam Berger
Yotam Berger
Yotam Berger
Yotam Berger

The Jewish population in the West Bank has increased by more than 330,000 people and eight settlements have been built in the West Bank over the past three decades. More than 380,000 settlers currently live in the West Bank, over 40 percent of them outside the settlement blocs, Haaretz has found.

In recent years several politicians have joined the settlers’ leaders talking about the goal of housing a million Israelis in the West Bank as a realistic option. When this happens, they believe it will no longer be possible to divide the area and draw a map of two states, Israeli and Palestinian. Such an extensive evacuation would become impossible, even if the left were in power, they say.

In fact, it would be hard to draw such a map already today, because in the past 50 years the settlements have spread out in the occupied territories, so that nearly 170,000 settlers live outside the settlement blocs.

The Central Statistics Bureau’s figures show that 44 percent of about 380,000 West Bank settlers – not including East Jerusalem – live outside the blocs.

A look at a map from 1968 shows five settlements, sparsely populated, beyond the Green Line. Their establishment was sponsored by the Labor Party, which had decided to settle the West Bank, some said for security reasons. One way or another, Pinchas Wallerstein, the former head of Mateh Binyamin Regional Council and one of the leaders of the settlers’ Gush Emunim movement, believes the settlers owe a considerable debt to the Labor party, in the years prior to the 1977 political upheaval.

“All the stages of Ariel’s development were approved by Labor,” he says. “The Trans-Samaria road, Givat Zeev, Ma’aleh Adumim, Beit Horon – it’s all Labor’s work.”

Labor may have started the construction in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but the dramatic increase in the settlers’ numbers began only after Likud, headed by Menachem Begin, rose to power. Immediately after the 1977 election, there were 38 settlements in the West Bank with a total of 1,900 residents. A decade later, settler population was close to 50,000 – in more than 100 settlements.

The settlements’ size and character also changed under the right-wing governments.

“Before Likud rose to power there was only one urban settlement – Kiryat Arba,” says Professor Hillel Cohen, head of the Cherrick Center for the Study of Zionism at Hebrew University. In the years to come, he says, towns were built up throughout the West Bank.

“It was government policy to increase the number of Jews in the territories. They made five-year plans, 10-year plans, spoke about how to get to 100,000 (settlers) and 300,000 and half a million,” he says.

Cohen says Ariel Sharon played a major role in expanding West Bank settlements. “For him, the rationale behind the settlements’ spreading was to prevent the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state,” he says.

In the years 1977-1984 the government did everything in its power to expand the settlements, wrote Professor Miriam Billig of Ariel University in an article titled “Ideology and the Shaping of Settlements in Judea and Samaria” (2008).

She says the momentum slowed down when the national unity government was formed in the mid-’80s. When Yitzhak Rabin formed his government in 1992, the state stopped building new settlements. But quite a few settlements had already been established and many Israelis flocked to them, she says.

By 1997, a year into Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, there were some 150,000 settlers in the West Bank. Two decades later the settlers’ number is close to 400,000, not including the East Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the Green Line.

These figures don’t include the settlers living in illegal outposts. According to Peace Now, there are some 97 illegal outposts throughout the West Bank. Hagit Ofran, head of the movement’s Settlement Watch project, says they are populated by several thousand settlers.

Fastest growing settler demographic: Ultra-Orthodox

Unlike the impression that the settlers and hilltop youth are all cut from the same “national-religious” cloth, the population in the West Bank is diverse. Only 100,000 settlers lived in predominantly national-religious communities in 2015, while 164,000 lived in secular or mixed communities.

But the settlers owe their main spurt of growth to the ultra-Orthodox population, which doesn’t usually cross the Green Line for ideological reasons.

“It’s a combination of necessity and the community leaders’ decision,” says Cohen. “The housing shortage, both in Bnei Brak and in Jerusalem, paved the way to setting up the Hasidic communities [in the West Bank].”

“At first a few of the ultra-Orthodox people settled in Immanuel,” says Wallerstein. “But this town alone didn’t solve their housing distress. The ultra-Orthodox community’s consideration in deciding where to live is the proximity to the city they come from.” So over the years large ultra-Orthodox settlements were established, like Beitar Illit for settlers from Jerusalem and Modi’in Illit for settlers from Bnei Brak. Altogether some 118,000 settlers were living in ultra-Orthodox settlements in 2015.

By this year some 65 percent of the settlers inhabited urban settlements. The population of these towns increased mainly in the ‘90s and early years of the 2000s.

In addition to the government policy to expand the West Bank towns, new immigrants, especially from the former Soviet Union, also contributed to this.

“New immigrants from the former Soviet Union settled in Ariel and Ma’aleh Adumim and some Russians also settled in Kiryat Arba,” says Cohen. “Some came to the West Bank later, after establishing themselves in the middle class.”

Many of the settlers didn’t move to the West Bank for ideological reasons but to improve their living conditions, due to the lower housing prices there. History Professor Idith Zertal, who co-wrote with Akiva Eldar the book “Lords of the Land,” believes this description is especially apt for the years ‘87-’97.

“It’s a period in which many moved to the settlements for economic reasons, much less for ideological ones. It also explains the increase of inhabitants in the towns – the people looking for apartments came to the towns.”

She says the towns in the West Bank were built on land close to urban centers within the Green Line. “For example, Ma’aleh Adumim is an extension of Jerusalem,” she says. “A man who has a 50-60 square-meter apartment in Jerusalem can buy one almost three times that size for less money than he’ll get by selling the smaller one. I think that may be the main reason for such intensive growth.”

Billig on the other hand thinks this explanation is too simplistic. “I know there’s an inclination to say that many settlers want to improve their housing conditions, but it’s both. Some who lived in small houses moved to larger ones, but a very large part of them did the opposite,” she says.

Today the construction in the settlements is different, she says. “Today they’re building smaller apartments and there’s a huge demand for them.”

“The hard-core veteran ideological settlers are very few today, I don’t think they’re more than 5 percent,” says Zertal. “In contrast, a different ideological group has grown, consisting of the old group’s children but mostly grandchildren. They are the spearhead today and there are very many of them.”

She says, “The veterans never spoke in the language of the hilltop youth – who mean every word. The veterans knew how to play the political game and manipulate the political system. The hilltop youth have no relations with that system, nor do they have any political rationale. They live in their own messianic bubble.”

One of the significant changes in the West Bank over the past 15 years was the building of the separation barrier. Billig says before it was built the settlers feared it would keep new settlers from coming. But in fact the fence does not seem to have deterred many.

“The fence had a very marginal influence,” she says. “It reduced prices at a certain time, but then they rose again. In a long term, I don’t see anything very significant.”

Ofran concurs. “The number of settlers beyond the fence increased after it was built, but it has nothing to do with the fence. The calm enabled people to return to these places, as well as Netanyahu’s policy to approve new construction in the settlements.”

In 2015 some 214,000 settlers lived in the settlement blocs, while 170,000 settlers lived in 106 settlements outside the blocs.

Modi’in, a city wholly within the Green Line, has become a sort of “central bloc” for West Bank settlements like Nili and Hashmona’im.

“In recent years Modi’in has become their urban center,” says Cohen.

The Central Bureau of Statistics has never made a detailed list of the number of settlers living in each settlement. In the ‘60s and ‘70s some settlements are marked as too small to hold a census in, and were assumed to have fewer than 50 residents. Illegal or unauthorized settlements also didn’t appear in the bureau’s census until they were legalized.

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