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Backgrounder Despite Attacks and Pressure, Settlements Continue to Grow

April 30, 2002
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Thirty-four years after the first Israeli settlement was established in Hebron, the Jewish settlement network in the West Bank and Gaza Strip continues to grow.

As of February, the settler population was estimated at 230,000, having approximately doubled in the past decade.

In the West Bank, 206,000 Israelis live in 130 settlements. In the Gaza Strip, 6,400 Jews live in 16 settlements.

An additional 17,000 Israelis live in 33 communities on the Golan Heights, land that Israel officially annexed in 1981 in a move overwhelmingly rejected by the international community.

These figures do not include some 170,000 Jews living in Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem. These territories also were annexed to Israel after the Six-Day War, but some Palestinians consider residents there as settlers.

Roughly half of the settlers live in large population blocs such as Ariel in the northern West Bank, Ma’aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion near Jerusalem, and Kiryat Arba near Hebron.

Almost, all Israeli governments, Labor and Likud alike, have built settlements since 1967. In some cases, the settlements constituted a return to land that was owned by Jews until Arabs killed or exiled the Jewish residents, as in Hebron in the 1929 riots or Gush Etzion in the 1948 War of Independence.

Some politicians who backed settlements were motivated by the desire to consolidate Israeli control over territory won in th1967 Six-Day War and prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state.

Others considered it easier to appease rather than confront right-wing groups that backed the settlement movement. Still others believed that the Palestinians would be forced to make peace once they saw the land they wanted disappearing the longer they persisted in rejecting Israel.

During the first decade after the 1967 war, Labor-led governments were the driving force behind the creation and expansion of settlements. Labor’s approach was incremental, but after 1977, the first Likud government, led by Menachem Begin, embraced settlements and used it to fuel the Likud’s political renaissance.

Jewish population in the territories grew rapidly. In 2000, just before the outbreak of the intifada, the settler population grew by 8 percent.

Settlement expansion continued even under Prime Minster Ehud Barak of the Labor Party, despite his intensive efforts to reach a final peace accord with the Palestinians.

The Palestinians cited the settlement-building as one of the reasons they lost trust in Barak, eventually leading to the collapse of peace talks and the outbreak of the intifada.

Many Israelis, on the other hand, point to Barak’s willingness to dismantle almost all the settlements in the context of a peace deal as proof that the settlements are not an impediment to peace.

In December 2000, President Clinton proposed borders for a Palestinian state encompassing 94-96 percent of the West Bank. That would have required abandoning scores of settlements, while allowing Israel to keep large blocs near the pre-1967 border in exchange for swaps of Israeli land to the new Palestinian state.

According to the proposals, some 80 percent of the settler population would be included in Israel in four major blocs from north to south: one around Ariel, the second around Ma’aleh Adumim, the third in the Etzion Bloc, and the fourth in the Hebron Mountains.

Clinton’s proposals became moot after he and Barak left office in early 2001.

Sharon was one of the primary architects of the settlement drive when he served as defense minister under Begin in the early 1980s and agriculture minister under Yitzhak Shamir in the early 1990s. As foreign minister under Benjamin Netanyahu in the late 1990s, Sharon urged settlers to make one last land grab before peace was finalized with the Palestinians.

Because of the ongoing Palestinian violence, some Israelis have called for a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, abandoning settlements even without a peace treaty. Sharon, however, said recently that his government will not consider abandoning any settlements, despite his frequent claim that he is ready to make unspecified “painful concessions” for peace.

The fate of Netzarim, an isolated settlement in the Gaza Strip, is the same as the fate of Tel Aviv, Sharon said recently.

Since Sharon became prime minister, according to a Peace Now survey, some 34 new settlement sites have been established in the West Bank. Peace Now’s methods often have been criticized by settler advocates, however, who claim that the left-wing group counts even new neighborhoods in existing settlements as new settlements.

According to Peace Now, however, most of the new settlement sites are located some 700 yards or more from existing settlements, with some as much as a mile away.

The Mitchell Plan, which is designed to bring about an end to the violent intifada and a return to peace talks, calls for a “freeze” on settlements. Sharon nominally accepted a freeze, but has reserved the right to continue building new neighborhoods to accommodate the existing settlements’ “natural growth.”

According to the Yesha Council, a settlers group, only 3,000 settlers — comprising roughly 1.4 percent of the settler population — left the settlements during 2001, despite the massive wave of terror the Palestinians have directed at settlers since the intifada began in September 2000.

This exodus was more than offset by natural increase and an influx of new residents, enabling the settler population to grow at a rate of 5 percent during this time, according to Yesha figures.

According to Dror Etkes, coordinator of Peace Now’s settlement watch team, the majority of new settlers are fervently Orthodox Jews who have moved from Jerusalem to Beitar Illit and Modi’in Illit.

According to Peace Now, however, some 10,000 settlers have left since the intifada began, a departure rate of 5 percent. The group explains the difference between its numbers and Yesha’s by saying that many of the settlers who left are still technically registered as residents of the territories.

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