On October 14, reporter Chaim Levenson from the left-leaning Israeli paper Ha’aretz – perhaps hoping to sow dissension in Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s razor-thin 61-seat coalition – wrote an article chiding Netanyahu for misleading right-wing coalition partners by “bragging” that the population in Israel’s West Bank settlements had grown substantially under his administration.
The article was published on Page 3 of Ha’aretz‘s english edition with the following headline:
(Online headline (subscription required): “Is Netanyahu responsible for rise in settler numbers?“)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that the number of West Bank settlers has grown by about 120,000 since he took office in 2009.
But while the number is correct, the reason has little to do with the pace of construction in the settlements during his tenure. In fact, since Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, there has been less construction activity in the settlements than under any other prime minister since 1995.
The article goes on to say that the increase is attributable to natural growth, not new housing. In fact, the article is revealing in a number of ways, as it refutes certain popular myths about settlements that have been embraced by both journalists and politicians.
Most recently, on October 13, US Secretary of State John Kerry implied that a “massive increase in settlements” were not only closing the window of opportunity for creating a Palestinian state, but fuelling the current wave of terrorism.
“What’s happening is that, unless we get going, a two-state solution could conceivably be stolen from everybody,” Kerry said. “And there’s been a massive increase in settlements over the course of the last years, and now you have this violence because there’s a frustration that is growing.”
Kerry’s claims about a “massive increase” in settlements is simply false (unless, of course, he was starting at the baseline of Netanyahu’s unilateral ten-month settlement freeze which ended in late 2010. Any increase from zero might be made to appear “massive”, although this sort of manipulation of statistics would be very misleading).
Settlements take up under two percent of the West Bank, with most settlements concentrated into blocs near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, keeping the option open for the creation of a contiguous, viable Palestinian state on virtually 100% of the land area after mutually agreed land swaps. The principle of land swaps – settlement blocs for territory inside Israel – has been part of every peace proposal that has been discussed between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators over the past 15 years and has been endorsed by the Arab League.
In addition, no new West Bank settlements have been started in the past 15 years. All physical settlement growth takes place within the boundaries of existing settlements – so it’s just not true that settlements are taking up appreciably more land in recent years.
But as my blog from November 2014 showed – in response to a false claim at that time by former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr that settlements had “doubled in the past 54 months” – many people erroneously confuse population growth within the settlements with physical settlement growth.
I wrote that, while population growth in the settlements has been significant, this can be attributed to the large families endemic to ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities that populate a handful of suburban settlements a short distance inside the West Bank.
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.
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.
Whether two Jews or eight Jews live in a settlement apartment has no impact whatsoever on the viability of a two-state resolution to the conflict.
Meanwhile, the number of actual housing starts in the settlements since current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took office in 2009 is at a much slower annual pace than under his predecessors.
Now, Ha’aretz has reconfirmed this fact:
[The settler population] increase, however, isn’t because Netanyahu has gone on a building spree. According to data from the Housing and Construction Ministry, an average of 1,554 houses a year were built in the settlements from 2009 to 2014 – fewer than under any of his recent predecessors.
By comparison, the annual average was 1,881 under Ariel Sharon and 1,774 under Ehud Olmert. As for Ehud Barak, during his single full year as prime minister, in 2000, he built a whopping 5,000 homes in the settlements.
The current rate is also only about half the pace of settlement construction during Netanyahu’s first term of office, in 1996-99, when it averaged almost 3,000 homes a year.
So why has the number of settlers increased so sharply? Due to natural growth, especially in the two ultra-Orthodox towns of Betar Ilit and Modi’in Ilit. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the fertility rate in the settlements is 5.01 children per woman, which is far higher than anywhere else in Israel. In the northern district, which ranks second, the fertility rate is just 3.91 children per woman.
On a final point: Journalists at the ABC and some leading Australian newspapers often rely upon stories from Ha’aretz that are critical of Israeli government settlement policy as the basis for news stories, features and commentary. Will they now publicise a Ha’aretz story that completely contradicts this misleading narrative, or choose to ignore it – and what would that say about their integrity if they do?