The Truth About Settlement Growth
When talking about West Bank settlements, a common talking-point among those who seek to paint them as a major obstacle to peace is to claim their growth is accelerating. For instance, the Israeli group Peace Now notes that since 2001,the population of West Bank settlements has been growing at a rate of 5-6%, more than double Israel’s general population growth rate.
The numbers appear correct as far as they go, but it is important to note where this growth is occurring and whether it is actually making Palestinian statehood more difficult, as is often asserted.
Isaac Herzog, Israel’s Minister for Welfare and Social Services, a member of the left-leaning Labor party and very much a man of Israel’s left, recently answered this question. He told a gathering in Jerusalem in December that he supported additional moratoriums on construction in settlements but added:
There is a lot of misunderstanding on the subject of construction in the settlements. If one looks at the data, certain settlements are dwindling… The real growth is in two major ultra-Orthodox towns – Modi’in Illit and Beitar Illit. I think that is what gives the impression that there is a huge wave of settlers moving into the West Bank. As Minister of Social Affairs, I see the data on population in the towns… There is no problem in building in the centre of Modi’in Illit or Beitar Illit… in any solution they will be part of Israel.
To expand on Herzog’s point, these two towns are both within a couple of kilometres of the West Bank border, and can easily be made part of Israel in land swaps in any peace agreement. Both are essentially suburbs of Jerusalem which serve a rapidly growing population desperate for affordable housing – ultra-Orthodox Jews, who, for religious and cultural reasons, need to live in neighbourhoods that service their particular needs. And as a result, both towns have grown astronomically in recent years. Modi’in Illit was only founded in 1994 but now has more than 45,000 residents. Beitar Illit is somewhat older, but has also grown very rapidly over recent years, and now has more than 40,000 residents. Moreover, both towns have very young populations and very high birth rates, leading to huge “natural growth” even without new families moving in.
Together, they probably account for something close to 60,000 of the supposed growth in the number of “settlers” over the past decade – more than half of the total. And that is without counting other large towns in major settlement blocs like Maale Adumim and Efrat, which also will not conceivably be given up in any peace deal.
In other words, most of the the “growth” in settlement populations in recent years which has gained so much adverse attention, is about places like Modi’in Illit and Beitar Illit and does not impede future Palestinian statehood in any way, shape or form.
Eyes Wide Shut in the Maldives
The Maldives are a beautiful group of tropical atolls south of India, with a relatively poor, overwhelmingly Muslim population. In early December, Israel sent a team of eye surgeons to the country to provide free treatment at “eye camps” in various locations, in full cooperation with the Maldives Government and the main hospital in the capital, Malé. More than 1,600 Maldivans registered to receive treatment at the “eye camps.”
However, some Maldivans were not pleased, to say the least.
The Islamic Foundation of the Maldives denounced the presence of the doctors saying “Israeli doctors and surgeons have become notorious for illegally harvesting organs from non-Jews around the world… After the news of the horrible earthquake that struck Haiti, Israeli medical teams jumped on the scene to harvest organs from dead or injured Haitians.” The President of the Islamic Foundation Ibrahim Fauzy also reportedly said that “it is also against our religion to have relationships with Jews.”
The religious NGO Jamiyyathusalaf was even more hysterical. It reportedly called on the Maldives Government to “provide military training to all Muslim Maldivans and familiarise citizens with the use of modern weaponry” before “Jews take over the country.”
Afrashim Ali, an opposition MP with the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) told a rally that Israelis and other foreign elements “should not be allowed to enter a 100% Muslim country” and warned that a new deal whereby an Indian company will administer the Malé airport will allow “the people of Israel, who are brutalising Palestinians without any justification, to come to the Maldives and take over.”
Perhaps the most telling statement came from the religious conservative Adaalath party, a coalition partner of the ruling Maldivan Democratic Party (MDP), which warned: “Don’t think that these are doctors from a normal hospital!” adding, “Zionists wishing to freely assist a 100 percent Muslim country defies logic” since it is “as clear as the afternoon sun that Jews would not wish well for Muslims.”
The background to these reactions is that in recent years, Maldivan politics have taken a decidedly Islamist bent. The Maldive’s latest constitution, ratified in 2008, not only makes Islam the state religion and Sharia the source of law, but also bars non-Islamic worship, and states that non-Muslims may not be citizens of the Maldives.
And it is clear that with this growing emphasis on Islam has come some bizarre and paranoid beliefs about Jews and Israel which can only have come from the Middle East. It is beyond sad and bizarre that so many Maldivans, with no history of contact with Jews, feel that being Muslim requires one to refuse to have relationships with Jews, and to believe that that it is “as clear as the afternoon sun that Jews would not wish well for Muslims.”