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Settlements in Focus - Vol. 1, Issue 15: Current Trends in Settlement Construction & Growth

Construction is on the rise in the West Bank on both sides of the "security barrier". Find out more...

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Settlements in Focus

Current Trends in Settlement Construction & Growth (Vol.1, Issue 15) - posted on 12/9/05
A publication of Americans for Peace Now

Is construction in settlements on the rise?

Yes. The most recent data published by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) indicate that settlement construction during the first half of 2005 was greater than during the same period in 2004.

In terms of new housing starts, the CBS reported that between January and June 2005, there were 1097 new housing starts, compared to 860 housing starts between January and June 2004 (an increase of 28%). This trend was mirrored in the figures for ongoing construction in settlements. The CBS reported that at the end of June 2004 there were 3984 housing units under construction, while at the end of June 2005 there were 4207 units under construction (an increase of 6%). For full details (Hebrew only) click here.

In addition, the website of the Ministry of Housing and Construction provides a detailed list of all current government initiated construction projects in Israel and the West Bank. According to that list (Hebrew only), at present there are 3696 housing units being built in West Bank settlements (plus another 1654 in East Jerusalem).

Peace Now has posted a summary of the list (in English) here (Excel file).

In general where is this construction taking place?

Most current construction in settlements (around 90%) is taking place in the settlements which are considered part of the main settlements blocs and/or are located on the western side of the approved route of the security barrier. These areas boast relative close proximity to the Green Line or Jerusalem (or easy access via sophisticated infrastructure links) and comparatively higher value for money. For a detailed discussion of Settlement Blocs, see Settlements in Focus Vol. 1, Issue 9).

More precisely, the location of the construction can be attributed to a confluence of economics and politics: there is a strong market for housing in areas that Israelis believe will be retained by Israel in the context of any final status agreement. Such areas are defined in the Israeli public consciousness, in large part, by the route of the security barrier. Moreover, many observers believe that Ariel Sharon intends for the barrier to become the future eastern border of Israel, a belief bolstered by the construction trends.

What is the role of the security barrier in the growth of settlements?

Recently, two prominent Israeli non-governmental organizations, B'tselem (Israel's preeminent human rights organization) and Bimkom (a highly respected organization of Israeli planners and architects who believe that planning is essentially a political tool), published a joint study showing the correlation between the route of the barrier (both planned and already constructed) and the plans to expand nearby settlements. The report notes:

"The currently approved route of the Barrier leaves fifty-five settlements, twelve of them in East Jerusalem, separated from the rest of the West Bank and contiguous with the State of Israel. Study of a map of the route indicates that in most of the cases discussed in this report, the Barrier's route was set hundreds, and even thousands, of meters from the houses at the edge of the settlement. The route of the Separation Barrier running near each of the twelve settlements discussed in the report more or less follows the borders of the outline development plan for the particular settlement, making it impossible to argue there is no connection between the route and the plan. Thus it is clear that contrary to the picture portrayed by the state, the settlement-expansion plans played a substantial role in the planning of the Barrier's route." (The full text of the report can be found here.)

The report makes a strong case that for the route's planners, security concerns were of secondary importance to settlement expansion. Moreover, in certain locations the planners opted for expansion, even in cases where this compromised security - for instance, moving the barrier farther eastward to permit the future expansion of a settlement, even though it meant placing the barrier in a valley, rather than on the high ground located further west. Similarly, the report showed that justification for including large areas of open land inside the barrier - arguing that it was necessary to create a "buffer zone" along the seam line - is not credible, since the land taken as "buffer zones" is in most cases land that is planned for future expansion of settlements - i.e., the plan is to fill the open space with civilian homes.

Recently the Israeli Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni (a supporter of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who moved with Sharon from Likud to his new "Kadima" party) was quoted as saying: "In the future the route of the separation barrier will become Israel's eastern border." This was the first time that an Israeli official stated what many observers have long considered obvious, and bolsters the view that the route of the barrier was designed with this purpose in mind. Supreme Court Vice President Mishael Cheshin, who attended the forum which Minister Livni, reacted by saying: "This is not what you said in court" - referring to the official position of the Israeli government in all cases regarding the barrier, where it insisted that the route was based solely on security considerations.

The findings of the B'tselem/Bimkom study are mirrored in a recent decision of the Israeli Supreme Court ruling regarding the route of the barrier in the area around the settlement of Alfei Menashe (southeast of Kalkilya). In this case, the court agreed with the appellants that the barrier around the settlement (which has already been completed) does not take into sufficient consideration the damage caused to Palestinian communities in the area (which are included within the barrier and thus isolated from the rest of the West Bank). Moreover, the court ruled explicitly that plans for future settlement expansion are "not a consideration that is to be taken into account" when planning the route. The court expressed dissatisfaction with the existing route and ordered the state to reconsider its options in this area.

Which specific settlements are home to the most construction?
(Note: All population figures are for the end of 2004 or June 2005, according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics)

Large-scale construction (hundreds of housing units), is focused in seven settlements. All but one of these fall inside the route of the barrier. These are as follows:

>West of the barrier

Alfei Menashe (pop. 5500): Located just southeast of the large Palestinian city of Kalkilya, Alfei Menashe is not part of any bloc. Problematically, while it is relatively close to the Green Line, there are Palestinians villages, including the large village of Habla, blocking any connection between Alfei Menashe and Israel. Nonetheless, this settlement and the surrounding lands on which it plans to expand have been included on the Israeli side of the security barrier by means of a balloon-shaped deviation in the barrier's route.

Ma'ale Adumim (pop. 29,500): Located on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem. Inclusion of Ma'ale Adumim and the nearby E-1 area inside the security barrier is controversial and the Ministry of Defense map of the barrier notes that the route in this area is subject to further study. Nonetheless, most Israelis expect Israel to retain control of Ma'ale Adumim and expansion of the settlement - and demand for housing there - remains strong. See Settlements in Focus, Vol. 1, Issue 1 for more details about Ma'ale Adumim.

Modi'in Illit (pop. 28,500): Located near the Green Line and north of Jerusalem, this ultra-Orthodox settlement has one of the fastest growth rates of any West Bank settlement. For a detailed discussion of the ultra-Orthodox settlements and the specific attributes see Settlements in Focus, Vol 1, Issue 12.

Beitar Illit (pop. 25,700): Located relatively close to the Green Line and south of Jerusalem, Beitar Illit also has one of the fastest growth rates of any West Bank settlement. While not part of the historical Etzion bloc, it has been encompassed in the expanded boundaries of that bloc as defined by the route of the security barrier. For a detailed discussion of the ultra-Orthodox settlements and the specific attributes see Settlements in Focus, Vol 1, Issue 12; for discussion of the Etzion bloc see Settlements in Focus, Vol 1, Issue 14.

Ariel (pop. 16,400): Located in the middle of the northern part of the West Bank, Ariel is the far eastern point of the Ariel Bloc. The Ministry of Defense map of the barrier includes the Ariel bloc inside the route of the security barrier. However, the route of the barrier in this area has provoked a great deal of controversy, and the map notes that the route in this area is subject to further study. Nonetheless, most Israelis expect Israel to retain control of Ariel (though perhaps not the entire bloc enclosed by the proposed route of the barrier, which includes "fingers" extending far to the north and south of Ariel) and expansion of the settlement - and demand for housing there - remains strong. Supporting this view is the fact that while the route in this area remains subject to further study, Israel has gone ahead and constructed the portion of the barrier that encircles Ariel, but has not connected it to the longer West Bank barrier. For more details about Ariel and the Ariel bloc see Settlements in Focus, Vol. 1, Issue 2.

Giv'at Ze'ev (pop. 10,700): Located northwest of Jerusalem, between Jerusalem and Ramallah, Giv'at Zeev is included inside the route of the security barrier, along with a large area surrounding it and encompassing other small settlements and virtually all the open land south of Ramallah to the Green Line.

>East of the barrier

Geva Binyamin, a.k.a. Adam (pop. 2100): Located northeast of Jerusalem, between Jerusalem and Ramallah

Another seventeen settlements are currently seeing medium-scale construction (tens of units), all but three of which fall inside the route of the barrier. These are:

>West of the barrier

Efrata (pop. 7300): Etzion bloc
El'azar (pop. 1000): Etzion bloc
Har Adar (pop. 2100): northwest of Jerusalem, abutting the Green Line
Karnei Shomron (pop. 6200): Ariel bloc
Kedumim (pop. 3000): Ariel bloc
Kiryat Netafim (pop. 420): Ariel bloc
Neve Daniel (pop. 1300): Etzion bloc
Nofei Prat (pop. around 150 families): Between Jerusalem and Jericho, in what is coming to be known as the "Ma'ale Adumim bloc" (even though it is not particularly close to Ma'ale Adumim)
Oranit (pop. 5500): south of Kalkilya, abutting the Green Line
Pedu'el (pop. 1100): Ariel bloc
Revava (pop. 738): Ariel bloc
Rosh Tzurim (pop. 300): Etzion bloc
Sha'arei Tikva (pop. 3700): like Alfei Menashe, the route of the barrier includes an irregularly shaped deviation south of Kalkilya in order to include Sha'arei Tikva and the neighboring settlement of Elkana on the Israeli side
Yakir (pop. 960): Ariel bloc

>East of the barrier

Itamar (pop. 600): Nablus area
Kochav Ya'akov (pop. 4600): Ramallah area
Sansana (pop. few dozens of families): southern West Bank, near the Green Line

Why should attention be paid to construction within settlement blocs or near the Green Line?

It is possible that, within the context of a negotiated agreement, Israel and the Palestinians will agree to leave many of the settlements - especially those located near the Green Line or within settlement blocs - under Israeli control. Decades of peace negotiations, including serious Track II efforts, have yielded a wealth of creative ideas for mutually agreeable mechanisms and arrangements, including innovative transportation schemes and land-sharing or land-swap agreements.

However, unilateral acts by Israel that impose an arrangement on the Palestinians are antithetical to the development of a stable, viable Palestinian state. They undermine the legitimacy of moderate, pro-peace Palestinian leaders and empower radicals. While President Bush has recognized Israel's concerns regarding the future of the settlement blocs, he has also repeatedly expressed his concern regarding the need for territorial contiguity for a future Palestinian state, and has called on the Israeli government to freeze all settlement activities in the West Bank. Settlement expansion - even in areas that Israel expects to or hopes to hold on to - contravenes the letter and spirit of the Road Map, which specifically prohibits settlement expansion, even in the case of natural growth. Similarly, in many areas the route of the security barrier defies the logic of security in order to include farther-flung settlements and surrounding land reserves. As a result, settlement construction, even in these areas, risks bolstering the view that Israel is not serious about negotiations but instead prefers to consolidate its control over key areas and later impose a solution on the Palestinians.

Are there any major construction projects in the pipeline?

There are probably dozens of plans for construction in and around the settlements. The problem is that information about these plans is difficult to obtain. For years the Israeli Civil Administration has failed to maintain transparency regarding information about settlement construction. As a result, the public (including Peace Now) generally only becomes aware of new plans after they have already been approved and execution has begun, or when Palestinians and their lawyers begin reporting new land confiscations or Israeli activities on their lands (like building fences, clearing trees, marking off boundaries, etc.). This has always been, and remains, one of the major problems with tracking settlement activity, and the Peace Now Settlements Watch team is working to improve public knowledge about such plans.

One plan that is well known is E1, the plan to build new settlement housing in the area northwest of Ma'ale Adumim. The plan, which has been around for years, has become well know only recently, mainly due to the wide-scale opposition it has generated - opposition mobilized originally by lawyers and activists, including those associated with Peace Now, who follow developments in Jerusalem with special care. To learn more about E1 plan please see Settlements in Focus, Vol. 1, Issue 1.

Who pays for and approves this construction?

Most construction in West Bank settlements - past and present - is initiated by the government of Israel. This is in contrast to construction inside the Green Line, which is mostly private. In 2004, for example, construction in the West Bank was 66% public versus 34% private; inside Israel construction for that same period was 23% public and 74% private (all numbers based on data from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics). The recent Peace Now report on this can be seen here (PowerPoint file).

In addition, the Israeli government (and thus the Israeli taxpayer) indirectly pays for construction by allocating public funds to subsidize settlers' mortgages. Like in any real estate market, most potential buyers do not have the resources to purchase a home without borrowing money. A portion of these borrowed funds come from the government, which works with the banks to enable many of the settlers to borrow on preferential terms.

Thus, construction that is initiated at the government's behest is then marketed, profitably, at the government's expense, with the government, in effect, subsidizing both the construction and purchase of the homes in settlements.

Is there a shortage/surplus of housing in settlements?

Looking at the overall picture, there is no shortage of housing in West Bank settlements. As discussed earlier, significant construction continues in many settlements. This is especially true in those settlements where there is a high demand for new housing, due both to new residents moving to the settlements and to so-called "natural growth" needs (i.e., growing families).

While settler spokesmen may sometimes be heard to complain about housing shortages, in reality the only real shortages are due not to the availability of housing but to the preferences of a very small subset of the settlers. More specifically, the most ideological settlers desire to live in homogeneous, ideological settlements. Demand for housing in such settlements has consistently been very low, with the population of some of the ideological settlements stagnating and even declining from year to year. Thus a new settler or someone who grew up in one of these settlements and is ready for a home of his own might want to live in a specific ideological settlement and have difficulty finding housing. This does not mean, however, that there is a shortage of settler housing the West Bank. (This is comparable to someone who has decided to move to Tel Aviv but is only willing to live in one small neighborhood. If there is nothing available there, he might claim that there is a housing shortage, at least from his perspective, in that particular neighborhood. He would be hard for him to make the case, however, that this is the same as a housing shortage in Tel Aviv).

Settler complaints about housing shortages in no way reflect the overall settlement housing situation in the West Bank. While it is difficult to know exactly how many completed houses are now standing vacant in the West Bank, a Peace Now analysis of population figures and construction numbers, bolstered by surveys on the ground, concludes that there are currently 1000-2000 vacant housing units in West Bank settlements. This, taken together with the more than 4000 additional housing units which are in some stage of construction right now, would seem to provide more than ample housing to accommodate the current growth in the settler population - a population which grew by 12,000 people during 2004, of which two-thirds was due to natural growth (i.e., settlers having babies), and around one-third due to migration of new settlers to the West Bank (and of these, a large portion are couples, which means fewer new homes needed). Details of the growth rate of the settler population can be seen here (PDF document).

What is the growth rate of the West Bank settler population overall (not including East Jerusalem)?

According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, over the past 4 years (since 2001) the annual growth rate of the Israeli population in the WB was just over 5%. This is a very high growth in comparison to the general Israeli rate of growth, which according to the CBS was 1.8% in 2004.

Are settlements expanding faster than the natural growth of their populations?

As previously reported in Settlements in Focus, Vol. 1, Issue 9, there is a significant gap between the "natural growth" rate (growth due to births) and the total growth rate (growth of the total population due to all sources, including migration) in many settlements. Historically, natural growth has represented about one-third to two-thirds of annual total growth in settlements, and actual construction in settlements has provided more than sufficient housing to accommodate this growth (i.e., there is no housing shortage in West Bank settlements). In 2003 "natural growth" in settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was 3.5% (for a table plotting nature growth in settlements since 1996, please see Settlements in Focus, Vol. 1, Issue 3).

Many settlements in the West Bank are growing at a much faster rate (see below for details). Among these, the largest population increases are found in the religious/ultra-orthodox settlements (or the religious neighborhoods in mixed settlements). For a detailed discussion of the ultra-Orthodox settlements and the specific attributes see Settlements in Focus, Vol. 1, Issue 12; in addition, settlements located close to the Green Line and/or Jerusalem continue to grow more rapidly than outlying settlements. These growth rates also correlate to ongoing construction in the settlements. For more details regarding population growth in settlements, click here.

Finally, there is notable growth in some settlements in the Jordan Valley, an area where settlements are otherwise drying up (notable in percentage terms, rather than absolute terms, since these are very small settlements to begin with). This growth correlates to an ongoing program of the World Zionist Organization's Settlement Department that provides exceptionally generous incentives to entice young Israeli couples to move to this site. This program includes: tuition assistance (up to NIS 12,000 per year to cover studies), direct payments (up to NIS 12,000 per year if one member of a couple works in the Jordan Valley) and housing subsidies (rent waived for up to four years or up to NIS 500 per month to cover rent). Details are available (in Hebrew) here.

Produced by Dror Etkes, Settlements Watch Director, Peace Now (Israel), and Lara Friedman, Government Relations Director, Americans for Peace Now

Index and Link to all issues of APN's "Settlements in Focus"