As Israeli settlement growth slows, some drift away

The West Bank Jewish settlement of Ofra is photographed as seen from the Jewish settler outpost of Amona in the occupied West Bank, October 20, 2016. The Palestinian village of Silwad is seen in the background.

By Maayan Lubell

BEITAR ILLIT, West Bank (Reuters) – After five years, Batsheva Reback couldn’t take living in an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank any longer.

Despite renting a house with a garden for far less than it would cost in Israel itself, it didn’t make sense. Her new apartment in Israel may be small, but unlike where she used to live it has a supermarket and a clinic nearby, it’s a quicker commute to work and she feels her children are safer.

“It’s easier to get things done,” said the 26-year-old kindergarten assistant, adding that the decision was not based on expedience alone. “I started feeling uncomfortable living in a settlement. Personally, I don’t think building more and more settlements is going to help bring peace.”

To the world, the narrative on settlements often reads one way: more of them being built, with more settlers moving in. But there are cracks in the picture, and signs Reback’s perspective is not uncommon – settlers are getting fed up.

Statistics show the population continues to rise, having now reached around 400,000 in the West Bank and 200,000 in East Jerusalem.

But behind the figures lies a different story. Although the population may have risen by nearly two-thirds in the past decade, the rate of increase has slowed sharply, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

A decade ago, for every 1,000 settlers already living in occupied territory, 20 more arrived each year. Now the expansion rate is just six per 1,000.

“The settlement enterprise is waning and what is left is being artificially kept alive by the government pouring money in,” said Shaul Arieli, an analyst at the Economic Cooperation Foundation, a think-tank that advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Since capturing the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war, successive Israeli governments have helped establish more than 120 settlements, spending billions of dollars to build tens of thousand of homes and the infrastructure to support them: roads, electricity, gas, water and communications.

There are scores more informal settler outposts, some of which have also received government funding.

While Israel’s right-wing government is in talks with the Trump administration about limiting expansion, it has also promised to build thousands more units this year to accommodate what it calls “natural growth” – families having more children.

Yet while population growth in the settlements is higher than the national average, its rate is also falling: In 1995, it stood at 10 percent. By 2015, it had dropped to 4 percent.

Leaders of the settler movement acknowledge the decline but say it does not reflect falling popularity. While the downturn is a concern, they say it stems from government curbs on construction: people aren’t moving to the settlements because there aren’t enough homes to house them.

“The pioneering settlement spirit, the desire to return to those places where the people of Israel have always been, is just getting stronger,” said Yigal Dilmoni, deputy head of the Yesha Council, the settlers’ main representative body.

That is what concerns the international community, which views settlements on occupied land as a breach of international law and an obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians, who seek a state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

Israel disputes the view that the settlements are illegal, and argues that it has biblical and historical ties to the land. Some right-wing members of the Israeli government want to annex up to 60 percent of the West Bank and massively ramp up the settlement enterprise.


Palestinians see any expansion of settlements as part of an Israeli project to deny them a state.

“They are building settlements at a rate of construction that is politically motivated,” Xavier Abu Eid, spokesman for the Palestinian Authority’s Negotiations Affairs Department. “Settlements and the incentives given to settlers are part of the Israeli government’s agenda. The two-state solution is clearly not.”

Settlement population growth is now largely driven by a handful of settlements built for the ultra-Orthodox community, whose families on average have six children.

Over the past two decades, the two main ultra-orthodox settlements, Beitar Illit and Modiin Illit, have grown from comprising about 10 percent of the West Bank settler population to making up nearly a third of it.

Unlike many of the hardline, ideological settlements deep in the West Bank, Beitar Illit and Modiin Illit are adjacent to Israel and would probably be incorporated in any peace deal with the Palestinians. Their cramped apartment blocs stand in stark contrast to the red-roofed, spacious houses with gardens that identify most settlements built on West Bank hilltops.

Ultra-Orthodox residents say they moved here because it’s cheap. The conflict with the Palestinians and settling the land are not on their minds. Any place that enables their often poor and close-knit community to live together is fine.

“Politically I’m not bothered. All those global considerations are not something the average ultra-Orthodox family can afford,” said 37-year-old Motti Hizkiyahu, standing outside a discount store in Modiin Illit.


While the rate of people moving to settlements and the growth within them has tapered, there are also signs of a generational shift in some of the most established, ideological settlements that spearheaded the movement in the 1970s.

Itzik Fleger, a real-estate agent in Beit-El settlement, said the founding generation is beginning to get older, their children have grown up and some have moved away.

It took Ruchi Avital two years of deliberations until she left the settlement of Ofra, her home of 30 years, to be closer to her children, all of whom moved out of the West Bank. She is a still an ardent supporter of the settlement enterprise, but a desire to be closer to her children overrode ideology.

Pictures of her former two-storey house and garden are affixed to her refrigerator in her new Jerusalem apartment, which she said is double the price and half the size.

While Ofra has seen more people leave than arrive in recent years, Avital, 64, believes it still has a future.

“It’s reached a critical mass, it’s mature enough now that it can handle people coming and leaving,” she said, adding that a family with children had moved into her old home.

Arieli, of the Economic Cooperation Foundation, says the reality is different. While the settlements are numerous, with vast state infrastructure to support them, the enterprise is not big enough to sustain itself, he argues.

“The settlement movement has failed in creating the physical conditions for annexation,” he said, referring to the push to annex the area where nearly all settlements are located. “The two-state solution is still strong and viable.”

(Additional reporting by Lee Marzel and Luke Baker; editing by Luke Baker and Peter Graff)

Netanyahu set to approve first West Bank settlement for 20 years

FILE PHOTO: An Israeli man wearing a Jewish prayer shawl, prays near a home in the early morning, in the Jewish settler outpost of Amona in the West Bank December 15, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he expected to sign off on Thursday on building the first new settlement in the occupied West Bank for two decades, even as he negotiates with Washington on a possible curb on settlement activity.

Netanyahu was due to convene his security cabinet later in the day to approve the new enclave, government officials said.

“I made a promise that we would establish a new settlement,” Netanyahu told reporters. “We will keep it today. There are a few hours until then and you will get all the details.”

He made the pledge in the run-up to the eviction in February of 40 families from the West Bank settlement of Amona. Israel’s Supreme Court said the dwellings had to be razed because they were built illegally on privately owned Palestinian land.

Israel and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump are in discussions on limiting the construction of settlements, which are built on land Palestinians seek for a state.

Such settlements, in territory that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war, are deemed illegal by most of the world. Israel cites biblical, historical and political links to the land, as well as security interests, to defend its actions.

Establishing a new settlement could be a way for Netanyahu to appease far-right members of his coalition government who are likely to object to any concessions to U.S. demands for restraints on building.

Trump, who had been widely seen in Israel as sympathetic toward settlements, appeared to surprise Netanyahu during a White House visit last month when he urged him to “hold back on settlements for a little bit”.

The two then agreed that their aides would try to work out a compromise on how much Israel can build and where.

Trump’s Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, this week wrapped up a second trip to the region aimed at reviving Middle East peace talks that collapsed in 2014.

A new settlement would be the first built in the West Bank since 1999. About 400,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank which is also home to 2.8 million Palestinians. Another 200,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem.

Palestinians want the West Bank and East Jerusalem for their own state, along with the Gaza Strip.

(This version of the story was refiled to remove extra words in paragraph 7)

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Louise Ireland)

Washington talks end without agreement on Israeli settlements

Jason Greenblatt (L), U.S. President Donald Trump's Middle East envoy meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem March 13, 2017. Courtesy Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv/Handout via REUTERS

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration reiterated its concerns about Israeli settlement activity, the two sides said on Thursday, as a round of talks ended without agreement over limiting future construction on land the Palestinians want for a state.

The four days of high-level meetings in Washington marked the latest step by President Donald Trump’s aides aimed at opening the way to renewed peace diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians, despite deep skepticism in the United States and Middle East over the chances for success.

Trump’s Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, who recently returned from a visit to the region, led the U.S. delegation in what were described as “intensive discussions” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff Yoav Horowitz and foreign policy adviser Jonathan Schachter.

Despite setting a more positive tone toward Israel than his predecessor Barack Obama, Trump urged Netanyahu during a White House visit last month to “hold back on settlements for a little bit.” The two then agreed that their aides would seek an accommodation on how much Israel can build and where.

“The United States delegation reiterated President Trump’s concerns regarding settlement activity in the context of moving towards a peace agreement,” according to a joint statement released by the White House.

“The Israeli delegation made clear that Israel’s intent going forward is to adopt a policy regarding settlement activity that takes those concerns into consideration,” it said. “The talks were serious and constructive, and they are ongoing.”

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been frozen since 2014 and settlements are one of the most heated issues. Palestinians want the West Bank and East Jerusalem for their own state, along with the Gaza Strip.

Most countries consider Israeli settlements, built on land captured in the 1967 Middle East war, to be illegal. Israel disagrees, citing historical and political links to the land, as well as security interests.

Trump has expressed some ambivalence about a two-state solution, the mainstay of U.S. policy for the past two decades. But he recently invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to visit.

Trump has not publicly detailed what kind of agreement he wants with Israel on settlements. But many supporters of a two-state solution have urged a formula that restricts construction to the large settlement blocs that Israel is expected to retain under any final peace accord.

In the talks, officials discussed measures for improving the climate for peace, according to the joint readout. It said a key focus was on steps that “could have a meaningful impact on the economic environment in the West Bank and Gaza,” and specifically a desire to advance efforts toward “self-sustainability” in electricity and water.

(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Egypt delays U.N. vote on settlements after Trump, Israel urge U.S. veto

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) stands next to Donald Trump during their meeting in New York,

By Michelle Nichols and Jeffrey Heller

UNITED NATIONS/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Egypt postponed a U.N. Security Council vote on Thursday on a resolution it proposed demanding an end to Israeli settlement building, diplomats said, after Israel’s prime minister and U.S. president-elect Donald Trump urged Washington to veto it.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told Egypt’s U.N. mission to postpone the vote, which would have forced U.S. President Barack Obama to decide whether to shield Israel with a veto or, by abstaining, to register criticism of the building on occupied land that the Palestinians want for a state, diplomats said.

In a sign that they feared Obama might abandon the United States’ long-standing diplomatic protection for Israel at the United Nations, Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the White House to veto the draft resolution.

Sisi put off the vote after a request from Israel, two sources familiar with the matter told Reuters. Egypt was the first Arab state to make peace with Israel.

Any council member can propose a draft resolution. Council member Egypt worked with the Palestinians to draft the text.

Netanyahu took to Twitter in the dead of night in Israel to make the appeal, in a sign of concern that Obama might take a parting shot at a policy he has long opposed and at a right-wing Israeli leader with whom he has had a rocky relationship.

Hours later, Trump, posting on Twitter and Facebook, backed fellow conservative Netanyahu on one of the most contentious issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the pursuit, effectively stalled since 2014, of a two-state solution.

“The resolution being considered at the United Nations Security Council regarding Israel should be vetoed,” Trump said.

“As the United States has long maintained, peace between the Israelis and Palestinians will only come through direct negotiations between the parties, and not through the imposition of terms by the United Nations. This puts Israel in a very poor negotiating position and is extremely unfair to all Israelis.”

Egypt circulated the draft on Wednesday evening and the 15-member council had been due to vote at 3 p.m. (2000 GMT) on Thursday, diplomats said. It was unclear, they said, how the United States, which has protected Israel from U.N. action, would vote.

The resolution would demand Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem”.

The draft text put forward by Egypt says the establishment of settlements by Israel has “no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law”.

It also expresses grave concern that continuing settlement activities “are dangerously imperilling the viability of a two-state solution”.

The White House declined comment. Some diplomats hoped Obama would allow Security Council action by abstaining on the vote.

Israel’s security cabinet was due to hold a special session at 10 a.m. EST (1500 GMT) to discuss the issue. Israeli officials voiced concern that passage of the resolution would embolden the Palestinians to seek international sanctions against Israel.

In Beirut, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told reporters: “The continuation of settlements is completely weakening the situation on the ground and creating a lot of tension. It is taking away the prospect of a two-state solution. So this could reaffirm our disagreement with this policy.”


Obama’s administration has been highly critical of settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. U.S. officials said this month, however, the president was not expected to make major moves on Israeli-Palestinian peace before leaving office in January.

Netanyahu tweeted that the United States “should veto the anti-Israel resolution at the U.N. Security Council on Thursday”.

Israel’s far-right and settler leaders have been buoyed by the election of Trump, the Republican presidential candidate. He has already signaled a possible change in U.S. policy by appointing one of his lawyers, a fundraiser for a major Israeli settlement, as Washington’s ambassador to Israel.

Netanyahu, for whom settlers are a key component of his electoral base, has said his government has been their greatest ally since the capture of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in a 1967 war.

Some legislators in his right-wing Likud party have already suggested Israel declare sovereignty over the West Bank if the United States does not veto the resolution.

That prospect seemed unlikely, but Netanyahu could opt to step up building in settlements as a sign of defiance of Obama and support for settlers.

Israel considers all of Jerusalem its capital, a claim that is not recognized internationally.

The United States says continued Israeli settlement building lacks legitimacy, but has stopped short of adopting the position of many countries that it is illegal under international law. Some 570,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

A resolution needs nine votes in favor and no vetoes by the United States, France, Russia, Britain or China to be adopted.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington, John Irish travelling with French foreign minister, and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Tom Heneghan and James Dalgleish)