The National – 25 December 2008
JERUSALEM // The population of Jewish settlers in the West Bank is not only growing at three times the rate of the Jewish population in Israel, but they are happier, healthier and wealthier than other Israelis, according to a new survey.
The poll reveals that, far from being as embattled as media reports suggest, the half million settlers are in fact enjoying a boom time in the occupied territory.
The findings have led one of Israel’s main newspapers to conclude that the settlers’ entrenchment in the West Bank is creating a separate state – “the State of Judea” – in parallel to Israel, with its own laws and a better-funded welfare system.
The report, conducted by the Ariel University Centre, in the settlement of Ariel, close to Nablus, draws heavily on figures compiled by the state’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Its main finding is that the settler population has more than doubled over the past 12 years, despite the fact that the settlements are in violation of international law and that the Israeli government has committed itself to dismantle settlement outposts.
In 1995, in the early days of the Oslo peace process, there were 130,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Now, after the settlers’ withdrawal from Gaza, the figure stands at 270,000 in the West Bank alone.
More than 200,000 settlers living in East Jerusalem are not included in the survey because Israel does not regard the city’s eastern half as occupied.
The rapid expansion of the settlements following the signing of the Oslo accords was once explained by Alan Baker, a legal adviser to the foreign ministry and himself a settler. He told the local media that – perversely – many Israelis were reassured about moving into the occupied territories by the Palestinian leadership’s acceptance of Oslo. They interpreted it as meaning that Israel was “no longer an occupying power but we are instead present in the territories with [Palestinian] consent”.
Even in the past three years, despite pledges from the Israeli government to the Bush administration that it would freeze settlement growth, the population in the West Bank increased by five per cent, compared to just 1.7 per cent inside Israel.
In 2007, the population of the West Bank rose by 14,500 – of which 9,000 were newborns.
This dramatic growth has been assisted in recent years by Israel’s building of special settlements for the ultra-Orthodox, religious fundamentalists who traditionally have large families. The ultra-Orthodox comprise one-third of the settler population, but only 7.5 per cent of the population inside Israel.
The 5,500 Jews who chose to move to the West Bank in 2007 bucked the overall trend of Jewish emigration from Israel.
Though there are no official figures, it is believed that since the outbreak of the second intfada, at least 20,000 Israelis have been leaving for the United States or Europe each year.
Other figures from the survey have surprised observers, especially given the recent coverage of the clashes between settlers and the Israeli army and the condemnation of the settlement enterprise from within Israel and internationally.
The findings show that 92 per cent of settlers are satisfied with their lives, 10 percentage points higher than in Israel. Family income is also noticeably higher than the Jewish population in Israel, and settler children do better at school.
The figures also show that 91 per cent of settlers report their health as good to very good, compared with 73 per cent of Israelis.
The possible reason for this contentment was provided by a survey conducted by Haaretz, a daily newspaper, in 2003.
It showed that the homes, education and infrastructure of the settlements had been massively subsidised by the government for many years.
Using conservative estimates, it revealed that the settlers had received US$12 billion (Dh44bn) in welfare benefits over what would have been made available to them if they had remained inside Israel.
A later official inquiry, the Sasson report of 2005, also found secret but systematic collusion between the settlers and government bodies.
Regarding the Sasson report, Haaretz concluded that, despite large cuts in services and welfare payments to Israelis in Israel, “a glorious welfare state is flourishing” for the settlers.
Many settlers themselves, however, have a different explanation for the appeal of their communities.
Eve Harrow, a 47-year-old mother of seven, moved from Los Angeles to the settlement of Efrat, between the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Hebron, 20 years ago. She denied that most settlers were drawn to the West Bank by the material advantages.
“People here have a strong sense of purpose and a very supportive network of families around us who share our ideology,” she said. “We know we are protecting the rest of Israel and that there would be a terror state here if we were not here. We’re stopping another Holocaust.”
She also believed most settlers were by nature optimistic. “Otherwise we would not be able to stick it out here.”
The satisfaction of the settlers contrasts starkly with a recent poll of Palestinians that found 40 per cent wanted to leave Gaza and 25 per cent wished to emigrate from the West Bank.