How Many Settlers Need to Be Evacuated to Make Way for a Palestinian State

A look at the map suggests the two-state solution could be achieved with a minimal evacuation of Jews from the West Bank

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A mass prayer held in protest of the planned evacuation of the Ulpana neighborhood in the settlement of Beit El in the West Bank, 2012.
A mass prayer held in protest of the planned evacuation of the Ulpana neighborhood in the settlement of Beit El in the West Bank, 2012.Credit: Emil Salman
Ori Mark
Ori Mark
Ori Mark
Ori Mark

Next month will see the 25th anniversary of the first Oslo accord, while soon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will mark a decade in power – round dates that give us a chance to examine in-the-box thinking. The conventional view is that this land is full of settlers, that the right is taking advantage of its long stretch in power to deepen its hold, and that the two-state solution is dying. But is all of that really so?

To address this issue, Haaretz analyzed the settlers’ population dispersal in the West Bank and compared the number of settlers in strategic centers on the eve of Netanyahu’s ascent to power and their number now. The examination revolved around two questions: 1) How many settlers were added to the isolated settlements over the past decade? 2) What is the minimum number of settlers who must evacuated in order to divide the land and draw a border between Israel and Palestine?

The conventional wisdom on the right is that half a million settlers have created an irreversible situation and that the partition of historical Palestine and the establishment of a Palestinian state are no longer achievable. So often has that mantra been sounded that many groups on the left have started to adopt it.

Just four months ago, the novelist A.B. Yehoshua wrote in Haaretz, “But above all, the two-state solution is fading because of the constantly expanding settlements in Judea and Samaria. Indeed, according to many experts who are familiar with the demographic and geographic reality, it is no longer possible to divide the Land of Israel into two separate sovereign states.”

Yehoshua isn’t the only one to adopt this notion. Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy is awed by the number of settlers, regardless of where they’re concentrated. In an October 2015 op-ed, he said the two-state solution “has been missed. Those who wanted a Jewish state should have implemented it while it was still possible. Those who set it on fire, deliberately or by doing nothing, must now look directly and honestly at the new reality.”

Long arms

But Yehoshua and Levy are both wrong. Let’s look at the map. Most of the Israeli suggestions for resolving the conflict have included the territorial arms that extend deep into the Palestinian parts of the West Bank, which would necessitate the annexation to Israel of the settlement blocs. Two such arms exist in the center of the country, one to Ariel and the other to Kedumim, via Karnei Shomron. From Jerusalem an arm was extended eastward to Ma’aleh Adumim, southward to Gush Etzion and northward to Beit El.

At the Camp David summit in 2000, Israel suggested extending a long arm from Beit She’an to Jerusalem so that the Jordan Valley would remain inside Israel. Another idea was to lease for a long period a stretch of land that would include several of the Hebron Hills settlements and Kiryat Arba.

If these arms are lopped off, what would remain is a Palestinian area that enjoys territorial contiguity and includes 33 isolated settlements. The population of these settlements, which are completely detached from the settlement blocs, is listed at 46,000, meaning 9,800 families at most – a number comparable to a large neighborhood in Israel. More families live in Jerusalem’s Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood alone.

The evacuation of 33 isolated settlements would not be enough to attain the Palestinians’ consent to end the conflict; a final-status accord would call for complex solutions. But it would be enough to demarcate a border between Israel and Palestine, unilaterally or in an agreement for a limited period.

In the past decade, the right has enfeebled the law-enforcement system, fought the media and incited against the left and the Arabs, but when it comes to settlement deep within Palestinian territory, it hasn’t achieved a strategic change. The Netanyahu governments have indeed diverted budgets to paving roads that will hamper partition, and the planning institutions are working away. But the growth rate in the isolated settlements under Netanyahu has been 400 families a year – not a number that shifts tectonic plates.

How is it that the right boasts about hundreds of thousands of settlers, while actually it would be possible to divide the land with the evacuation of 9,800 families? There are two explanations. One is that the vast majority of the settlements were built near the Green Line in order to expand the waists of Israel’s two metropolitan centers, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The large settlement concentrations lie east of Tel Aviv (near the separation barrier) and around Jerusalem – in Gush Etzion, Ma’aleh Adumim and the Route 443 area.

The second explanation is that the largest increase in the number of settlers has been in the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and in the ultra-Orthodox cities of Modi’in Ilit and Betar Ilit, adjacent to the Green Line, which will remain part of Israel in every scenario, and which are thus irrelevant to the partition issue. A decade ago, the number of settlers in these two towns stood at 73,000; today this number tops 130,000. This neither improves nor reduces the prospects of a border being drawn between Israel and Palestine.

Minuscule growth

To scuttle partition, the right must increase the number of settlers who live in the areas between the Palestinian cities, thereby precluding territorial contiguity. But the map shows that the right-wing governments have left whole regions, in both the north and south of the West Bank, almost free of settlers.

After the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank in 2005, only four settlements remain in the triangle between Jenin, Nablus and Tul Karm – Shavei Shomron, Hermesh, Einav and Mevo Dotan. One might have expected Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party to want to beef up Israel’s hold in this area. But during the past decade these settlements have grown by a minuscule number, just 140 families.

A similar situation exists in the southern West Bank. Between the southern approaches of Bethlehem, running east of the settlement of Efrat, and the northern approaches of Hebron, there is only one settlement, Karmei Tzur. In the past 10 years this strategic settlement has grown by only about 80 families.

Another tactic for scuttling partition has been to seize the hills around metropolitan Palestine and surround them with Jewish settlements. That tactic was partially applied around all the West Bank’s big cities. Thus Elon Moreh, Itamar and Bracha are settlements that were established around Nablus. Together with the tactical reason for intensifying construction in them, the government had another reason to develop them: Itamar and Elon Moreh were the targets of two of the critical terrorist attacks in the past decade (the massacre of the Fogel family, in 2011, and the murder of the Henkin couple, four years later). Netanyahu and the right-wing ministers routinely declare that terror will be answered with construction. But declarations are one thing and actions another. In the past 10 years, only 350 new families have joined those three settlements.

The maps and numbers leave no room for doubt: When it comes to construction in the settlements, Netanyahu is like an old refrigerator – freezing almost everything and making a lot of noise.

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