In his op-ed in the Weekend Australian, “Why I’m now a friend of Palestine rather than Israel” (paywall restricted) the new patron of the Labor Friends of Palestine, former foreign minister Bob Carr, makes the claim that “they [Israel’s settlements] have doubled in the past 54 months alone”.
This claim appears to be unsubstantiated fiction that may serve no useful purpose except to promote two complete and utter falsehoods: that new settlements are being built; and that housing expansion for Jews in the West Bank is higher than historical averages.
This outrageous assertion demands an immediate rebuttal. Furthermore, research into the probable source of the allegation serves as a case study in how misleading, inaccurate statistics have been promoted and sensationalised in the media and by activists without fact checking.
The allegation would seem to be rooted in a press conference on October 31 at the conclusion of the Human Rights Committee’s (HRC) 112th session in Geneva by UN Commission on Human Rights member Cees Flinterman. Unfortunately, it does not appear that any recording of this press conference has been made available on the internet. The original publicised source for the claim attributed to Flinterman was the UK-based pro-Hamas website Middle East Monitor, in an article entitled “UN Report: Israeli settlements have doubled in the last four years“.
The only supporting documentation for the claim attributed to Flinterman can be found in the HRC’s “Concluding observations on the fourth periodic report” that simply criticises “the continuing construction and expansion of settlements throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, that has more than doubled” without further explanation, time frame or sourcing for the claim.
According to Middle East Monitor, however, Flinterman mentioned a four-year time frame for the growth during the press conference. Even assuming he said it, without footnoting it’s hard to determine where Flinterman and the HRC sourced this allegation from.
It certainly wasn’t from any official Israeli statistics or from Israel’s 72-page reply to the HRC regarding how Israel is fulfilling the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, responding to questions that had nothing to do with the growth of settlements at all, though one sub-query cynically asked when Israel would evacuate them.
According to documents available on the HRC’s website, there were, however, at least 30 Palestinian or historically pro-Palestinian NGOs that did submit reports to the HRC that contained many allegations against Israel. It’s conceivable that the allegation came from one of them.
Whoever made this claim, Israel’s own publicly available construction statistics completely contradict it.
It is certainly not true that “settlements” have doubled in 54 months. They have grown by zero percent, because no new settlement has been built since 1999. Not one.
Neither has the population increased by 100% in 54 months. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, 313,928 Israelis lived in the West Bank in 2010. That number had increased to 358,953 by 2013, the latest statistics available. That’s an increase of 14% over three years.
That’s far from double, but it may seem high at first glance and deserves some further context – specifically regarding the phenomenon of natural growth in settlement populations due to a handful of West Bank settlements with extraordinarily high birth rates among their ultra-Orthodox populations.
This trend is not new. According to a report from 2005 by Peace Now, ultra-Orthodox accounted for over 25% of Israelis living in the West Bank, and this population is increasing rapidly due to natural growth as those families have “an average of 7 children per couple”.
Two years later, Ha’aretz noted that the high birthrate among ultra-orthodox accounted for half of all annual population growth in Israel’s West Bank settlements at that time.
By 2011, a study by Israeli sociologist Yinon Cohen found that the ultra-Orthodox had risen to 31% of all Israelis living in the West Bank, again largely due to their high birth rate.
The ultra-Orthodox do comprise the fastest-growing Israeli population in the West Bank and the vast majority of that 14% growth between 2010 and 2013 was found in these settlements which are suburbs of Jerusalem and Modi’in that are expected to remain part of Israel as a result of land swaps in any conceivable peace agreement.
Regarding Jerusalem – a city living under complete Israeli sovereignty – the population growth among Jewish communities in parts of the city that were added after the 1967 war has been relatively low.
At the end of 2009, 193,700 Jewish Israelis lived in parts of Jerusalem that were added to the municipality after the war of 1967 (known as east Jerusalem), accounting for 39% of the entire Jewish population in the city.
Exactly three years later – the most recent statistics that are available – 199,650 Jewish residents lived in those areas, a population increase of just 3%, and maintaining the same proportion to the Jewish population elsewhere in the city.
As I wrote in a blog in March, only by distorting perspectives though cherry-picking time frames and ignoring long-term trends can anti-settlement NGOs claim that Israeli construction in the settlements or east Jerusalem neighbourhoods is at a high historical pace.
Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics has published annual figures on housing construction starts in the West Bank since 2000 and quarterly figures since 2006. AIJAC maintains an archive of these figures in a spreadsheet and has created line charts with the data to illustrate the facts about settlement growth, in contrast to Carr’s hype:
Annual Israeli housing starts in the West Bank since 2000
Quarterly Israeli housing starts in the West Bank since 2006
While housing construction starts have undergone spikes and dips, the average amount of housing starts has been generally low since 2000. Between 2001 and 2008, there was an average of 1751.5 housing starts per year. Between 2009 and 2013 – the years current Prime Minister Netanyahu has been in office – the average has decreased to 1547.4 housing starts a year. If this year’s figures continue at the same pace as the first two quarters, 2014’s housing starts would number just 1014!
Of course, in saying that, it’s also important to recall that in late 2009, Netanyahu instituted a unilateral 10-month freeze of new construction in the settlements in a good-will gesture to lure the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. That ended at the end of September 2010 after the Palestinians refused to negotiate until the end of the period and then only agreed to negotiate an extension of the freeze.
It is true that 2013 was an anomaly as Israeli housing starts in the West Bank doubled from the previous year, but news reports ignored the fact that even after the spike, there had been fewer housing starts on average since 2009 than in recent years past, and the fact is that housing starts since that spike have plummeted well below the pace that preceded it.
As I blogged in March:
Evelyn Gordon, writing at Commentary Magazine’s website, said that although it’s true that the number of housing starts doubled last year , it was starting from a very low point, and Obama ignored the fact that overall, Netanyahu has built far fewer homes in the settlements than his predecessors.
As a simple glance at the annual data published by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reveals, there has been less settlement construction during Benjamin Netanyahu’s five years as Israeli premier (2009-13) than under any of his recent predecessors.
During those five years, housing starts in the settlements averaged 1,443 a year… That’s less than the 1,702 a year they averaged under Ehud Olmert in 2006-08, who is nevertheless internationally acclaimed as a peacemaker (having made the Palestinians an offer so generous that then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice couldn’t believe she was hearing it). It’s also less than the 1,652 per year they averaged under Ariel Sharon in 2001-05, who is similarly lauded internationally as a peacemaker (for having left Gaza); the fact that even Sharon out-built Netanyahu is particularly remarkable, because his term coincided with the second intifada, when demand for housing in the settlements plummeted. And it’s far less than under Ehud Barak, who is also internationally acclaimed as a peacemaker (for his generous offer at Camp David in 2000): One single year under Barak, 2000, produced more housing starts in the settlements (4,683) than the entire first four years of Netanyahu’s term (4,679).
Remember – no new settlements have been built since 1999, and under policies in place since 2004, the growth of existing settlements has been strictly confined within the boundaries of the settlements themselves. The total land area that settlements take up amounts to less than two percent of the West Bank.
A parting point to consider: in discussing Israel, the HRC’s report has relatively little to say about the issue of settlements in general. As always, it’s mainly concerned about Israel’s treatment of minorities inside the country itself and the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Simply put, monitoring Israeli population growth in the settlements is not the HRC’s department. One can only conclude it was parroting something that it was told – the question remains who fed them that claim.
It’s not surprising that pro-Hamas Middle East Monitor would exaggerate the significance of the unsubstantiated allegation in the HRC’s report, but Carr, who has made settlements his signature issue as foreign minister and now as a patron of Labor Friends of Palestine, has always claimed to have a better grasp of the issue.
By repeating this laughable claim that settlements have “doubled” in 54 months, he appears to show embarrassing ignorance of the plain facts. This should give anyone pause about his commitment to integrity over sensationalism with regard to the issue in the future.