Frontlines: Is settlement growth booming?

The question sounds simple. And building has certainly resumed since the 10-month moratorium ended in September. But the true picture is far more complex.

Maaleh Adumim 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Maaleh Adumim 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Palestinian moves to censure Israel in the United Nations Security Council over settlement construction are the latest in a series of steps they have taken to place West Bank Jewish communities at the heart of the conflict. Now that the US has failed to sway Israel to continue forcibly curbing such activity, the Palestinian Authority has held fast to its stance that no talks can be held while West Bank Jewish building continues. The intensified focus on settlement construction has generated confusion and misunderstanding over what is actually happening in the settlements, particularly when it comes to growth. The following is a guide which answers some of the fundamental questions.
What exactly constitutes a settlement?
Settlements are communities located in any area over the Green Line – other than in east Jerusalem – that were given legal status by the government, in most cases through a cabinet decision. They were created between 1967 and 1999. Unlike other communities, settlements fall under the jurisdiction of the Defense Ministry, and all construction in them must be approved both by that ministry and by the Prime Minister’s Office.
The international community considers any West Bank settlement construction to be illegal and includes Jewish areas of Jerusalem over the Green Line when it speaks of settlements. Israel, however, does not speak of any part of the capital as a settlement, because it annexed the eastern part of Jerusalem after the Six Day War, a move which under Israeli law gave that section of the city same legal status as any other community within the pre-1967 borders. Unlike the international community, the US does not classify east Jerusalem as a settlement, although it has spoken out sharply against construction there.
And what exactly are outposts?
Outposts are communities over the Green Line and outside of Jerusalem – constructed between 1991 and 2004 – that were not authorized by the government.
Fledgling outpost sites created after this time lack the same level of infrastructure and support, and are often removed by the Defense Ministry.
How many settlements are there and how many people live in them?
According to provisional data from the Central Bureau of Statistics, as of June 2010, 303,900 people lived in 122 West Bank settlements. In 2009, the settlement population was 296,700. The CBS this year recalibrated its population data countrywide, a move that created changes in population data it had previously released in 2008 and 2009. Of those 122 settlements, 23 registered no population increase or had a declining population in 2009, when compared with 2008. Another 72 grew by fewer than 100 people, and 51 of them grew by fewer than 50 people. Only Modi’in Illit and Betar Illit grew by more than 1,000 people.
When it comes to the population of the settlements, 71 had a population of fewer than 1,000 in 2009 and of those, 48 had a population of fewer than 500.
Another 24 had a population of anywhere between 1,000 to 2,000. Only five settlements have a population of more than 10,000.
Is Israel still building new settlements?
No. Israel last approved a settlement, Negahot, in 1999, according to the CBS. All new legal settlement involves building within the boundaries of an existing settlement. Left-wing groups, such as Peace Now, however, have contended that some Jewish West Bank construction is akin to the creation of a settlement, even if technically it is within the boundaries of an already authorized community.
According to the CBS, 47 settlements were built between 1967 and 1979. Another 70 were constructed between 1980 and 1989. Only five were built between 1990 and 1999. Starting in 1990, most construction and population increases involved growth in already existing settlements. From 1967 until 1991, the settler population grew from 0 to 94,100. From January 1992 until June 2010, it tripled, growing by another 209,800.
How does Israel measure settlement growth?
Growth is measured both by population and construction increase. The CBS provides annual and sometimes biannual data on population growth. It also releases construction data on a quarterly and yearly basis. The CBS often updates its database to modify its numbers, which creates a number of minor discrepancies.
This data focuses solely on construction of permanent housing that is considered legal. It is broken down into three categories: housing starts, housing finishes and active construction. Out of the three, the finishes provide the most accurate construction assessment, because they represent completed apartments or homes that families can move into.
Housing starts, which indicate how many foundations have been laid, are a fairly good indication of what one can expect to see in the finishes, but they are not absolute as projects can get delayed for financial and legal reasons. Also, there is an increasing trend among settlers to lay false starts, whereby those who have permits but might not be ready to start building, break ground and lay a foundation anyway. They do this to ensure their ability to build, should a freeze be imposed, even though it might be a while before they can begin real work on the site.
The CBS figures for active construction indicate how much work is actually going on.
Often that number is twice as large as the finishes and starts. While CBS data is comprehensive in assessing settlement growth on an overall level, it only provides individual data on the five largest settlements.
The absence of this individual data, which the CBS refuses to release, makes it impossible to analyze present construction trends within settlements, although population statistics are fairly good indicators of where past construction has occurred.
The only significant alternative to the CBS is Peace Now, which does primary research on the settlements, both through on the ground research and aerial photographs.
Although it does not release consistent data, it provides information on construction in individual settlements. It also gives information on settlement activity not included by the CBS, such as illegal construction, modular housing and outposts.
What does the CBS measure when it looks at construction?
It measures only legal homes or apartment units in settlements. Illegal construction, outposts and caravans are broken out separately.
Public institutions, roads and commercial structures are also not included in the standard calculation. Since the moratorium ended, much attention has been paid to housing starts, rather than finishes, by way of assessing the moratorium’s immediate impact, if any, on construction trends.
What was the construction freeze?
The freeze was a 10-month moratorium on housing starts that lasted from November 26, 2009 to September 26, 2010. Work, however, was allowed to continue on 3,000 apartment units for which foundations had already been laid. According to the CBS, only 50 foundations were laid in West Bank settlements from January 1 through September 26 of this year.
How much construction has there been in the West Bank?
Since 1994, housing starts have ranged from a low of 1,320 to a high of 2,520, with the exception of a four-year blip from 1998- 2001 when the numbers almost doubled.
Housing finishes were similar. In 2009, housing numbers were slightly on the high end.
Starts were 1,920 and finishes were 2,070.
Has there been a construction boom in the settlements since the end of the freeze?
No hard data has been presented to indicate that the number of settler housing starts this year has increased. The best calculation of how many housing projects had broken ground since the freeze ended came from a November 13 Peace Now report based on aerial photographs. It showed that 1,126 new foundations had been laid in close to 60 settlements.
That number, which does not include data from the last seven weeks of the year, falls short of the CBS data of 1,920 housing starts in 2009.
Last week, Peace Now released a new number of 1,712 starts. That includes illegal construction, including in outposts, as well three factories and units for which foundations had yet to be laid, but it did not significantly update its database of housing starts. Peace Now has said that is likely to wait until at least January before reporting on additional starts, but it believes that its data is very conservative and that much more construction has occurred than even it has reported. CBS data for October, November and December will not be available until the end of February.
Why do NGOs such as Peace Now talk about a construction boom?
Peace Now is projecting a boom, but it is not reporting on an existing one. It is looking at the pace of construction and not at the existing data on actual starts. Based on the November report and additional monitoring, Peace Now has estimated that when it comes to housing starts, settlers have done in three months what in past years they did in 12. It believes this is the start of a new rate of settlement activity and this rapid pace will continue into next year. It is Peace Now’s contention that the next year’s data will show that a construction boom exists, even though it does not reflect that kind of hike now.
What is the backlog effect?
Peace Now’s argument does not take into account the possibility of false starts. Nor does it address the backlog effect. New foundations since the freeze ended are most likely the housing projects that would have been initiated at the normal pace throughout the year had the freeze not prevented such activity.
For there to be a construction boom above and beyond the backlog, one would have to have the standard number of projects plus extra ones. If this were occurring, the numbers of foundations would have to be significantly higher than last year. Numbers available to date show that this has not happened.
Peace Now has also not taken into account the 21 percent drop in the number of finishes for the first three quarters of 2010, as reported by the CBS. During the moratorium settlers had the ability to finish 3,000 homes, but they didn’t. If ideology was the determining factor in settlement building, settlers should have picked up the pace at which they finished construction on available houses.
It was the best and easiest way to continue to stake a claim to the land and to increase population. The fear of a total freeze should have pushed then to move as fast as they could.
But instead of picking up the pace, settlers slowed down. For the first nine months of this year, they finished work on 1,175 homes, even though nothing was stopping them from completing as many as 3,000.
Are the demographics of settlement construction changing?
Settlement construction is often lumped into one category, as if rampant building is happening in every settlement. In reality, construction is going on in fewer than half the 122 settlements. It occurs on a large scale in only a small number. From 1996 to 2009, for example, 33,591 houses were built. Exactly 16,999 of them, 51%, were constructed in the three largest settlements: Modi’in Illit, Betar Illit and Ma’aleh Adumim. In 2009, for example, there were 2,070 finishes. Out of those 1,217 were in those three settlements. The other 853 were in the other 119 settlements.
What is the silent freeze?
Since Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu entered office in March 2008, settlers have warned of a silent freeze, a failure to approve new construction, that would halt settlement building. To date, Netanyahu has approved no public tenders and has given the go ahead to only 500 new units of private construction. As a result, 14 of the 19 largest settlements are out of permits.
Most significantly, Betar Illit, the second largest, and Ma’aleh Adumim, the third, are out of construction permits. This means they cannot start new projects. From 1996-2009, these two cities contributed 31% of all settlement construction.
Can smaller settlements make up for the anticipated silent freeze in Ma’aleh Adumim and Betar Illit?
A September Peace Now report claimed that settlers have permits for 11,047 homes in at least 48 settlements and there is nothing to stop them from building unless a new freeze is imposed. It also explains that its November report of 1,126 new foundations revealed a new pattern of construction, in which building increased in smaller settlements.
Only 30% of that construction was in the three largest settlements, compared with 70% last year. The drop was particularly sharp at Modi’in Illit and Betar Illit. There is some speculation that Modi’in Illit could soon be out of permits.
Peace Now is concerned that the number of available permits is higher than it reported, given that it was unable to determine the status of permits in 43 settlements. In the past, settlers have not rushed to make use of these permits, in part because they are in settlements where the need is not so great, and where leaders want growth to happen more slowly. The Megilot Regional Council in the Dead Sea has close to a thousand permits, but it plans to build at a staggered pace over at least the next decade. Even Tekoa, in a highly desirable location, which can build some 500 homes, is only working on 32. But Peace Now believes that settlers could decide to accelerate these plans.