Look at the Figures: Israel's Settlement Enterprise Has Failed

Supporters of Greater Israel tout the settlements' high rate of population growth, but the details paint a very different picture.

Shaul Arieli
Shaul Arieli
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Palestinian schoolgirls walk with a donkey as the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, near Jerusalem, is seen in the background November 13, 2013.
Palestinian schoolgirls walk past the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, near Jerusalem, November 2013.Credit: Reuters
Shaul Arieli
Shaul Arieli

Prof. Yehoshafat Harkabi wrote in 1982 about the Bar Kochba revolt in the context of contemporary political realism. “The risk of a national disaster was inherent in our existence as a land of vision, since a vision wishes to change reality. However, the magnitude of this vision, which determines its successful realization, depends on its connection to reality, so that even if the vision wishes to override reality, it is always embedded in this reality. That’s the difference between a vision and 'a fantasy floating on an illusion'” (“Vision, not Fantasy: Lessons from the Bar Kochba Revolt and Realism in Contemporary Politics,” in Hebrew).

Demographic data published at the end of 2015 by the Civil Administration in the West Bank regarding the number of Israelis living in Judea and Samaria shows that last year, as in preceding ones, the efforts invested by Benjamin Netanyahu’s current government in consolidating the settlement enterprise in order to establish irreversible facts on the ground reflect a very costly self-delusion.

The real significance of these settlements is rooted in the continued damage they do to Israel’s standing and image, in addition to the harm caused to its social fabric.

The Jewish population in the northern West Bank, say the data, grew by 4 percent in 2015 – double the rate in Israel proper. This number is touted by all the disciples of the Greater Land of Israel. The truth, as usual, lies in the details and trends reflected by these numbers. The government doesn’t bother to distinguish between the causes of growth in specific locations, since murkiness serves its purpose. This is to prove that the Jewish population in the West Bank has grown and is further entrenched there, perpetuating an irreversible reality that obviates a two-state solution.

In 2015, as in the preceding five years, almost 90 percent of the 15,523 individuals who joined the population of Judea and Samaria were a result of natural population growth. The drastic drop in migration from locales within the Green Line (1967 borders) to the West Bank over the last 20 years (from 6,000 a year in 1996, to less than 2,000 in 2014) attests to the fact that people “are voting with their feet” rather than considering building a future in these settlements.

Naturally, much of the natural growth in question occurs in Orthodox (Haredi) populations, amounting to 40 percent of the total. Almost all the growth took place in two West Bank locales: Betar Ilit and Modi’in Ilit. These towns were established as a cheap solution to housing shortages in Haredi communities and their growth is due to two factors: their proximity to the Green Line and the fact that, according to all diplomatic proposals discussed in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to date, these towns will remain under Israeli sovereignty.

This interpretation of the situation is supported by the fact that in the Haredi town of Emanuel, which is quite far from the Green Line, there were only 27 new residents last year, although the town is slated to remain within the planned separation barrier (Betar Ilit grew by 2,361 people that year).

A similar trend can be seen in the two secular towns of Ariel and Ma’aleh Adumim, which also lie within the proposed, future barrier. Ma’aleh Adumim, five kilometers past the 1967 borders, grew twice as much as Ariel, which is situated 21 kilometers away from them. However, the growth in these two locales constituted only 7 percent of the number of new residents across the West Bank and accounted for only 9.3 percent of the population growth in areas lying within the planned barrier.

These facts imply that the feet of the ultra-Orthodox, who mostly call themselves “settlers by coercion,” as well as the feet of secular people, are planted firmly in reality. They are under no illusions.

Last year, as in all the preceding 40 years, 75 percent of the population growth occurred in settlement blocs in the territories, despite the fact that in recent years 50 percent of new housing units were constructed outside these blocs. Assuming that these groupings of settlements – constituting only 4-5 percent of the total area of the West Bank – are not substantial enough to prevent establishment of a Palestinian state as part of a final agreement that will include land swaps, members of Habayit Hayehudi and their Likud partners have been strenuously promoting the expansion of isolated settlements and the strengthening of illegal outposts, whose inhabitants mainly support these parties.

Figures published by the Civil Administration show that whereas only 9 percent of population growth occurred within the bounds of the future security barrier, in settlements associated with the traditional Gush Emunim settler movement, 50 percent of the increase in the number of Jewish residents took place in settlements lying outside these boundaries.

According to the vision they champion, Likud and Habayit Hayehudi believe that establishment of certain demographic facts will prevent the partition of the land. This can be achieved by channeling support and extraordinary funds to isolated settlements, bolstering all aspects of life there.

In practice, however, the reality is stronger than the vision. First of all, the nationalist-religious-messianic camp contributed less than 20 percent of the annual population growth recorded in the number of Jews in the West Bank. This increase is dispersed across dozens of small communities and does not constitute even one half of the increase in the two larger locales mentioned above. Secondly, Palestinian demographic dominance is on the rise vis-a-vis isolated Jewish locales outside the blocs of settlements, with a current 26:1 population ratio between them.

Thirdly, several Jewish settlements are stagnating. In some, population growth is lower than the average rate in Israel proper; in others there is even a decline. “Infusion” tactics by the Amana settlement movement, which sends groups of young people to live in these isolated communities, are insufficient for spurring serious growth and development. Ignoring the problem of the massive military presence required for their protection, the spatial and demographic impact of these isolated settlements is negligible, as is the impact of the illegal outposts, 35 of which the government is now trying to authorize.

Moreover, plans to pass a bill by which Palestinians will be compelled to concede privately owned lands within such settlements for monetary compensation are but “a fantasy floating on an illusion,” in Harkabi’s words.

The future of most of the secular settlements, as well as that of some of the national-religious and mixed ones, depends on whether the government adopts a two-state solution and its territorial parameters, according to which the border will be based along the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed exchange of lands, comprising up to 4 percent of all the occupied territories.

One can hope that the leaders of these communities will face reality soon and demonstrate responsibility toward their citizens. They must insist that the government dispel the political fog regarding the future of their locales, thereby stanching the erosive trends of abandonment and stagnation that exist there.

The data show that, as in earlier years, in 2015 as well the settlement enterprise failed to establish the physical conditions on the ground that would facilitate a unilateral annexation of the West Bank or large parts of it, thus flying in the face of worldwide opposition, in a move that would not harm the Zionist vision of a democratic country with a Jewish majority.

The existence of some of these settlements could change Israel’s boundaries as part of a final agreement, but they won’t add even a single square meter to its area, due to land swaps.

It turns out that the settlement enterprise has been the worst real estate investment in the history of the Zionism, unless one prefers Jewish settlements on the western slopes of Samaria to Israeli settlements in the western and northern parts of the Negev or in the Beit She’an valley.

A responsible government needs to extract the maximum it can from a given reality, by agreeing to land swaps as part of a final settlement. The settlement enterprise contributed its part by making the Palestinians and the PLO adopt a compromising approach, and by bringing them to adopt United Nations Resolution 242, which gives them a state on only 22 percent of Mandatory Palestine.

Ignoring current reality and its constraints by adopting a false hope that vision and symbols will shape a more desirable reality is a sure recipe for disaster.

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