Israeli Settlers Embrace New Strategy in Bid to Achieve Million-resident Vision

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Construction projects underway in Leshem settlement, West Bank, December 2018.
Construction projects underway in Leshem settlement, West Bank, December 2018.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Rami Hipsh
Rami Hipsh

In the 1980s, when the West Bank settlement enterprise took off, the leading slogan to attract home buyers was “five minutes from Kfar Sava.” The ads promised spacious single-family homes in a rural setting for a low price. In addition to towns such as Ariel, Betar Ilit, Efrat, Immanuel, Ma’aleh Adumim and Modi’in Ilit, small communities were established in which each buyer received a half-dunam (around 5,450 square feet) plot on which to build their dream home.

There’s a new slogan now, “East Gush Dan.” The Yesha Council of Settlements has for some years been marketing the settlements of the West Bank as being near major roads and transportation arteries and job hubs — 10 minutes from Route 6 and not too far from both Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv area. Now, large apartment complexes are being built to attract new residents across the Green Line.

One example of this trend can be seen in Kedem. Harei Zahav, a developer with projects in 20 West Bank settlements, is aggressively marketing a 900-unit project here. Ads for the project, aimed primarily at young religious families, describe Kedem as a new community. But Kedem is not really a separate community; it is a new densely-built neighborhood of Avnei Hefetz, a settlement of 500 families in private homes, 4 kilometers southeast of Tul Karm and 15 kilometers from Tzur Yitzhak. When the new neighborhood is fully occupied, it will change the character of the entire community.

“The city plan that was suitable 20 or 30 years ago included one- and two-family homes. That won’t work anymore,” says Harei Zahav CEO Shlomi Vermstein. “There isn’t a lot of land for building, and people understand the need for high-quality, high-density housing. This is also what draws new residents to the area.”

Construction projects underway in Leshem settlement, West Bank, December 2018.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

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Some Palestinian communities, contending with the expansion of the Jewish settlements and outposts, have also begun to build higher.

“Boundaries were set for the village beyond which you can’t build, so we’re building up,” says A. of Al-Luban, a village near Beit Arye, where three-story buildings are visible. “We’re farmers, we like to live on the ground, but there’s no other choice.”

Lessons of the disengagement

The Kedem project is one of several high-density construction projects in the West Bank that have gained broad support from the Yesha Council, the administrative body for Jewish communities in the West Bank. It also receives massive aid from Amana, the Gush Emunim settlement movement, which has similar construction projects of its own. The two organizations shifted their focus after the 2005 disengagement and the evacuation of settlements in the Gaza Strip and in northern Samaria. A year later, Yesha Council leaders began putting together an alternative plan and new vision: 1 million residents in Judea and Samaria.

Building in the West Bank often comes up against problems, such as the government’s construction freeze policy and legal battles over homes built on Palestinian-owned land, that led to the evacuation of Amona and of buildings in Netiv Ha’avot and Beit El and led the Yesha Council to seek to comply with approved master plans and to maximize construction possibilities.

Once this vision was consolidated, the Yesha Council set out to convince two audiences, the government and the Israeli public. In June 2017, the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee held a special session marking the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War and of settlement in Judea and Samaria. Only a very small number of MKs attended: then-committee chairman David Amsalem (Likud), Eitan Broshi (Zionist Union) and Housing Minister Yoav Galant (Kulanu).

Present in much greater numbers were Yesha Council officials and the heads of West Bank communities, who came prepared with new thesis: Rather than talk of territories and settlements, talk about the new Gush Dan. Gush Dan East.

Construction projects underway in Leshem settlement, West Bank, December 2018.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

The plan was backed up with economic data. The Yesha officials commissioned a study based on the average price of a four-room apartment in Greater Tel Aviv at the time, 1.7 million shekels ($451,500). The average price of a four-room apartment in the area bounded by Karnei Shomron, Ariel and Modi’in Ilit was 1.3 million shekels. According to the Yesha Council’s calculations, 67,000 new housing units, for 340,000 people, could be built in a belt east of the Sharon, Gush Dan and Modi’in.

“If we just look eastward, we’ll find the solution just a 10-minute drive from Gush Dan,” Yesha Council deputy head Yigal Dilmoni said after the meeting. “Western Samaria has a diverse population and is suitable for religious, secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews, and without any special effort, but just by advancing building plans, tens of thousands of housing units could be built. An eastward-looking planning approach is what the government needs to adopt.”

Opposition at home

Early signs of this change in approach can be seen in Leshem, a religious community next to Alei Zahav, an old and largely secular settlement in southwestern Samaria near the Palestinian village of Deir Balut. Leshem has some one-family homes, but consists mainly of terraced apartment buildings, unlike Alei Zahav and Peduel. Ariel is about 15 kilometers to the east, approximately the distance between Herzliya and Tel Aviv.

“There’s great momentum here,” says Vermstein. His company, Harei Zahav, is also in charge of this project. “People are moving to Leshem for the quality of life, and because it’s just 10 minutes from the main traffic arteries. Other communities in Samaria are also not far from Route 6. Kedem is 10 minutes from Route 6 and even Mevo Dotan, which is considered more isolated, is just a 20-minute drive from Route 6.”

Leshem is filling up fast, as are other towns and communities between Leshem and Ariel to the north and around Modi’in Illit, which are all in the process of shifting to high-density building. One of these places is Beit Arye-Ofarim, where the high-rise construction was not warmly welcomed.

Palestinian village Deir Balut, West Bank, December 2018.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

In September, signs were posted at the entrance to Beit Arye and on the roads to it announcing the construction of a new neighborhood, Nofei Dan. Some 515 housing units are planned for this new neighborhood, south of Ofarim, including one-family homes and terraced apartments. The project is slated for inclusion in an upcoming Mehir Lamishtaken lottery, with 20% of the apartments earmarked for young people from settlements in the area. The project was one of the main campaign issues in November’s mayoral election in Beit Arye. The winner, Yehuda Elbaum, who unseated Avi Na’im, promised to change the mix of the project and not allow high-density construction that would change the community’s character.

The change in community character is a significant challenge for the Yesha Council. It launched an information campaign in settlements and media outlets associated with the right and the settlers. In a column in the newspaper Makor Rishon in February, Yesha Council Chairman Hananel Dorani wrote: “Looking ahead, the patterns of thinking and action in the settlement movement need to be changed in two main areas: high-rise construction and doing away with admission committees. The available land for building is not plentiful. Until now, we’ve been used to rural communities with a one-family home on a half-dunam plot, but the goal from now on should be to build as many housing units as possible on that same land. High-density construction — building up or in a terraced fashion, depending on topography — will change the balance in the area and also require a new approach to infrastructure development to suit the number of residents in the future.”

The Yesha Council wants to eliminate the admission committees, believing they slow down building projects. “We’re trying to convince communities to accept everyone,” says one council member, who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s not easy, and there’s opposition, but settlements need not be limited to religious and right-wing [people]. It should be opened up to all.”

Vermstein agrees. “Most of the people who buy a home in a settlement ... live between Hadera and Gedera,” he says, referring to the towns that traditionally marked the northern and southern boundaries, respectively, of central Israel. They “are looking for a place with a high quality of life and good prices. They’re looking for a community. A small portion are from Judea and Samaria. We sold 150 three-room apartments at 690,000 shekels. These are apartments that have the potential for the addition of two rooms, so young couples can break walls and enlarge the apartment. The sales were very successful.”

Construction projects underway in Leshem settlement, West Bank, December 2018.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

According to the Yesha Council, the Jewish population in the West Bank is 435,000, with a large portion in the big towns. There was 3.4% growth in 2017 — down 0.5% from 2016, but significantly above the 2% growth of Israel as a whole. In the past decade, the Jewish population in the West Bank rose 4.5%. Some of this growth is attributable to the ultra-Orthodox population in places like Immanuel, Betar Ilit and Modi’in Ilit. A smaller part comes from families joining new projects.

Infrastructure problems and traffic

The developers, community heads and Yesha Council officials want to guarantee that the high-density construction is accompanied by open spaces and large parks. Yet, as with communities within Israel proper with accelerated development (such as Rosh Ha’ayin, where traffic became a serious problem before Route 444 was widened), infrastructure is also a problem in the West Bank.

Construction projects underway in Leshem settlement, West Bank, December 2018.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

The main issue is traffic. The vast majority of Israelis living in the West Bank work in Jerusalem, Greater Tel Aviv or the Sharon, just north of Tel Aviv. At peak traffic hours, they join the tens of thousands of others all headed for these places. By 6:30 A.M., the major roads in the West Bank are pretty clogged.

Yesha Council officials say they are working with the government on the infrastructure problems, adding that there are plans to build “bypass roads,” such as a detour around the Palestinian town of Hawara, and to widen the “tunnel road” from Gush Etzion to Jerusalem. “It will take time of course, but we certainly won’t be able to get far without major attention to infrastructure.”

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