Israeli settlements: frozen, but still cooking

JERUSALEM — Palestinian negotiators said again this week they’d refuse to re-enter direct peace talks with Israel unless the current partial freeze on construction in Israeli settlements is extended when its term runs out in September.

But as a report released this week by the Israeli human-rights organization B’Tselem reveals, a real settlement freeze would have to be a very, very big chill.

B’Tselem’s report, called “By Hook or By Crook: Israeli Settlement Policy in the West Bank,” documents the massive scope of Israel’s settlement operation. It says that hundreds of millions of dollars are being paid to settlers, real estate developers and settlement municipalities as incentives to expand the settlements. It also highlights the manner in which every layer of Israeli bureaucracy continues to be involved in an expansion project that successive Israeli governments have pledged in international forums to halt.

For the human rights group, the issue is not political. Jessica Montell, B’Tselem’s executive director, said that the inequality of life in the West Bank — rather good if you’re an Israeli and pretty bad if you’re Palestinian — is the most objectionable upshot of the settlements, which she adds are illegal under international law.

“In the West Bank, your rights are based on your nationality,” she said.

The Palestinian negotiators, who said this week that direct talks would have to wait for a renewal of the construction freeze, would agree. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed last November, under U.S. pressure, to a 10-month partial freeze on construction. But he has refused to commit to a renewal of that freeze even though the United States has coaxed the two sides into indirect negotiations.

B’Tselem officials note that the settlement freeze will have been almost worthless unless it’s extended. When the freeze was initiated, Netanyahu gave exemptions to 2,500 housing units. The Israeli authority which governs the West Bank adds that there have been 400 instances of “illegal construction” during the freeze, only a few of which have been torn down.

“The main problem is that the freeze is too short,” says Montell. “The planning process is long and many buildings were started before the freeze or received permits before the freeze. If the freeze continues, then you’d see the effect.”

If construction restarts in September, Israel would likely restart an operation of staggering proportions. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, under which Israel was supposed to halt construction in the settlements, the West Bank’s settler population has risen from 110,000 to 301,000. (Add the dozen Israeli neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and you’re up to 500,000 Israelis living on land deemed occupied by the international community, out of a total population of 7.3 million.)

Though Israel repeated its promise to halt building in the settlements to President George W. Bush under his 2003 “Road Map,” Israeli governments have continually provided massive subsidies, which in effect encourage Israelis to move to the settlements in contravention of the policy Israel claims to propound. Since Israel signed onto the Road Map, the settler population is up 30 percent.

Over 20 percent of the growth in the settlement population is by migration from Israel itself. It isn’t the “natural growth” Israel’s government frequently cites, meaning the need to house people born in the settlements. That’s twice the rate of growth of the most vibrant areas within Israel’s border.

Is this migration because of financial incentives? Well, in Tel Aviv, an expensive city where Israelis receive no financial benefits from the government, the migration rate is negative. People are leaving.

In the settlements, Israelis frequently explain that they moved there for affordable housing for their family, rather than for the ideological or biblical reasons propounded by the stereotypical wild-eyed settler with his Uzi who’s often seen in foreign news reports. The B’Tselem document highlights exactly why it’s so affordable to move to the settlements.

Settlements receive preferred development status for government grants, even though settler income is 10 percent higher than Israel’s average and unemployment is lower than the Israeli average.

Land is subsidized, so apartments are cheaper. Even so, settlers get favorable mortgages with government assistance. The Construction and Housing Ministry gives a $25,000 grant to new apartment purchasers. Settlers can take out a government-financed $62,000 second mortgage, which the government’s own watchdog says lacks “any criteria for allocation.”

Teachers living inside the settlements receive benefits that boost their salaries up to 20 percent, including 80 percent of their rent and all travel expenses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 25 percent of settlers work in education, which is twice the percentage of educators in Israel’s general population.

An income tax benefit to settlers was cancelled in 2003, but municipal taxes remain much lower than inside Israel.

The Interior Ministry funnels $285 million annually to settlement municipalities, double what city halls representing a comparable population would receive inside Israel.

B’Tselem officials point out that there are many more sources of funding for settlements that the government hasn’t disclosed. “Even the State Comptroller was unable to define how much the Ministry of Construction and Housing was giving to the settlements,” said Eyal Hareuveni, the report’s author.

Some observers argue that the number of settlers is now simply too large for them to be moved in a future peace deal. Montell disputes that.

She argues that if the financial incentives were reversed, many settlers would happily move back inside Israel’s borders. She cites settlements on the eastern side of Israel’s separation barrier — that is, those on what’s often thought of as the side which will one day be part of a Palestinian state — where residents have been quoted in Israeli media as saying they’d like to leave. They can’t leave, however, because their property values have dropped and a comparable home in Israel is too expensive. If, she argues, such people received aid to move back to Israel, many settlements would empty out.

“You could put in place policies for providing disincentives for living there,” Montell said. “People would leave if these were the conditions.”


Editor's note: This story was updated to correct an error: The B’Tselem’s report, called “By Hook or By Crook: Israeli Settlement Policy in the West Bank,” says that hundreds of millions of dollars are being paid to settlers, real estate developers and settlement municipalities — not hundreds of billions.