Ultra-Orthodox Jews Deliver a Population Boom to the West Bank

Interior Ministry: By June, more than 25% of West Bank settlers were concentrated in three religious settlements.

The settler population is growing twice as fast as the rest of the country every year, and the ultra-Orthodox community is responsible for approximately half its annual growth, according to Haaretz's analysis of Interior Ministry figures for 2006. In the last year, the settler population has grown by 5.45 percent, from 260,932 to 275,156.

Without the ultra-Orthodox community the West Bank settlements' growth is 3.7 percent, only a little more than the natural growth the settlements would see, which stands at 3.5 percent.

The growth rate in the ultra-Orthodox Beitar Ilit and Modi'in Ilit is higher than most places in Israel. Modi'in Ilit's population, some 40,000, grows annually by about 11 percent (this year it has grown by 12.5 percent).

Beitar Ilit's population, some 35,000, grows annually by some 10 percent - five to six times more than Jerusalem and Tel Aviv's population growth respectively and twice as much as the growth of many other settlements.

By the end of June, 72,106 people - more than a quarter of the West Bank settlers - were concentrated in Beitar Ilit, Modi'in Ilit and Kochav Yaakov, another ultra-Orthodox settlement, according to Interior Ministry figures.

Most of the ultra-Orthodox settlers - young couples or young families with numerous children - do not live in the West Bank for ideological reasons. They moved to the settlements due to the soaring real estate prices in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, which created an acute housing shortage.

The local authorities predict that in 10 to 15 years Betar Ilit's population may consist of some 17,500 families totaling some 100,000 residents. Today the town has 5,828 occupied housing units, 1,102 units are under construction and another 5,800 are being planned. Modi'in Ilit has 6,800 occupied housing units and its population is expected to reach 150,000 in the near future.

The ultra-Orthodox rabbis sanctioned living in these settlements in view of the housing shortage, but they also assumed these territories would be annexed to Israel sometime in the future.

Yankel, about 30 years old, was born in Jerusalem and lives in Beitar Ilit with his six children. When he reached marrying age, he could not afford an apartment in Jerusalem. A few years ago, with the help of his parents and a mortgage, he purchased a four-room apartment in the town for $115,000.

A few months ago his brother also married, left Jerusalem and moved next door to Yankel. Their parents are now considering moving to Beitar Ilit as well.

Yankel is a teacher. His wife and sister-in-law found high-tech jobs, as have many ultra-Orthodox women in recent years. His brother found work driving children to school.

Every year 60 new classrooms open in Beitar Ilit, where the children make up 63 percent of the population. In Jerusalem, by comparison, the children make up 45 percent of the population.

Some 48 babies are born in Modi'in Ilit weekly - some 2,700 a year - and every year an average of 57 new first-grade classes open.

Between the end of June 2006 and June 2007, the number of settlers in the West Bank grew by 5.45 percent. Last year the growth of the ultra-Orthodox population made up 40 percent of the increase in the settlers' numbers, and this year its contribution is bigger.

Beitar Ilit and Modi'in Ilit are in the settlement bloc earmarked to be annexed to Israel, according to this government and the plans of previous ones. Before retiring, former GOC Central Command Yair Naveh signed an order joining Beitar Ilit's area with Jerusalem's municipal area. Ilit, the region's busiest transport company, makes some 400 trips to and from Jerusalem daily.

Modi'in Ilit, which is on Highway 443 between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, is also near Highway 6 and will be on the future Tel Aviv-Modi'in-Jerusalem railway line.