Economic incentives, not ideology, lure most Jewish settlers

By TSERING D. GURUNG and CLAIRE MOLLOY

 

After spending months looking for a house in Jerusalem, Or Hushi – who had lived in a rented apartment in the Israeli capital all her life – did something she thought she’d never do: she moved into a settlement.

In February, Hushi and her husband bought a two-bedroom apartment in Ma’ale Adumin, an Israeli settlement only four miles from Jerusalem, for a price she said was 30 percent less than that of a similar-sized apartment inside Jerusalem.

“We found that buying a house was not a possibility in Jerusalem,” said Hushi, 28, coordinator of innovation and entrepreneurship development at the Israeli College of Engineering.

Housing prices in Israel rose by 114 percent and rents by 49 percent from 2007 to 2015, according to a report by the Shoresh Institute for Economic Research. This has led many secular Israelis like Hushi to move into settlements where housing is significantly cheaper, much to the dismay of Palestinians who view these acts as encroachment upon their land and causing obstacles to the two-state solution.

“If they want to build cheap housing, there’s a lot of land they can use in Israel; in the south, in Negev, in the Galili, there are many areas.” 

An apartment in a settlement on the outskirts of major cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv costs 40 percent less than one inside the cities, according to a report by Peace Now, an advocacy organization that monitors settlement activities.

Libby Reichman, 64, a longtime resident of Efrat – one of the oldest settlements in the West Bank – said she moved there because she wanted a house with a garden, something she was unable to find or afford in Jerusalem.  

“Also, what we liked about Efrat was that it was going to be an open city,” said Reichman, who moved to Israel from the United States in the 1970s. “Anybody could come and buy. Nobody was going to vet you.”

The term “settlements” refers to Israeli towns built over the Green Line – the pre-1967 boundary with the West Bank. Most of the international community considers settlements illegal because they are built on lands that Palestinians view as part of their future state.

Despite repeated calls from the U.S., the European Union and many other countries to halt construction, the Israeli government, especially under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has continued to support the expansion of settlements.

Today, an estimated 400,000 Israelis (East Jerusalem excluded) live in the 123 settlements scattered all across the West Bank, compared to 200,000 in 2005.

Besides low housing costs, another driving factor is the high quality of life, a direct result of the government’s increased investment in these communities.

According to a Peace Now report published in 2013, the government allocated 17 percent of its housing budget to settlements, although the settlers make up only 4 percent of Israel’s total population. Similarly, the Israeli Ministry of Education invested twice as much per student living in settlements as in students in Israel in 2010.

“These policies have nothing to do with logic, other than a political wish to encourage settlements,” Ofran said.

An apartment in a settlement on the outskirts of major cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv costs 40 percent less than one inside the cities, according to a report by Peace Now, an advocacy organization that monitors settlement activities.

Libby Reichman, 64, a longtime resident of Efrat – one of the oldest settlements in the West Bank – said she moved there because she wanted a house with a garden, something she was unable to find or afford in Jerusalem.  

“Also, what we liked about Efrat was that it was going to be an open city,” said Reichman, who moved to Israel from the United States in the 1970s. “Anybody could come and buy. Nobody was going to vet you.”

The term “settlements” refers to Israeli towns built over the Green Line – the pre-1967 boundary with the West Bank. Most of the international community considers settlements illegal because they are built on lands that Palestinians view as part of their future state.

Despite repeated calls from the U.S., the European Union and many other countries to halt construction, the Israeli government, especially under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has continued to support the expansion of settlements.

“I don’t feel strongly that Israel should occupy this land. But until the day I can afford to buy a place inside Jerusalem, I will be here.”

“I always compare what happened here with what happened to the Native Americans,” said Ambassador Amal Jadou, assistant minister on European Affairs and head of the European Department at the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while speaking to students of CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in Ramallah. Photo by Tsering D. Gurung

She adds that the municipalities in the settlements receive three times the budget of their counterparts in Israel and that residents enjoyed tax breaks while a vast majority don’t have to pay for the land.

“The bottom line,” Ofran said, “is that our government is saying we are interested in holding the territories; we are interested in investing and building more and more, and we are not interested in having a Palestinian state side by side with Israel.”

Last December, the UN Security Council voted 14 to 0, with the U.S. abstaining, to pass a resolution condemning Israeli settlements. In response, the Israeli government announced earlier this year plans to build 5,500 new housing units and the first new settlement in 20 years.

Palestinian officials see this as a problem.

“An ordinary Palestinian looking at the situation today will say, ‘What Palestinian state? Where will that Palestinian state be established?’ You have settlements every step of the way that are being built and scattered throughout,” an official at the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said at a recent meeting in Ramallah.

Children play at a playground in Beitar Illit, one of the largest and rapidly growing settlements, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. According to data from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, the Israeli Ministry of Education invested twice as much per student living in settlements as in students in Israel in 2010. Photo by Tsering D. Gurung
Hagit Ofran, the director of the Settlement Watch Program at Peace Now, an Israeli organization that advocates against expansion of settlements at her home in Jerusalem. Photo by Tsering D. Gurung

The same official also stressed how the Israeli government’s support of the settlements undermines the two-state solution agreed upon by the two sides with the signing of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord.

“The Israeli government provides incentives to settlers to move into these apartments which shows that it is not just a random policy,” said the official. “It’s a systematic policy, and it has been a systematic policy with all the Israeli governments.”

Many Israeli officials, however, don’t view settlements as a major issue. Deputy Minister Michael Oren, a Kulanu party member of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, said the issue of settlements can be solved through land swaps when there is peace.

“All the settlements together account for 2 percent of the West Bank,” said Oren. “So should they come to negotiate, settlements won’t be the issue.”

Oren, who is a member of Netyanyahu’s ruling coalition, cites Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and its relocation of over 8,000 Israelis living there as an example.

But he fails to note the large difference between the challenges of relocating 8,000 people versus 400,000.

And then there are people who have moved to the West Bank for ideological reasons and may not easily succumb to promises of handsome compensation.

“I am spiritually connected to the land,” said Aaron Lipkin, spokesman for Ofra, a settlement north of Jerusalem.

Others like Hushi, however, would be happy to leave.

“I don’t feel strongly that Israel should occupy this land,” she said. “But until the day I can afford to buy a place inside Jerusalem, I will be here.”

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