Haredim lead settlement growth beyond Green Line

The Construction and Housing Ministry issued tenders on Monday for the construction of 690 new housing units in Betar Illit and Ma'aleh Adumim, two of the largest settlements over the Green Line. "Betar Illit is part of the consensus," and the tenders were seen as efforts to bolster the consensus in settlement blocs, said Bezelel Kahn, media advisor to Betar Illit Mayor Yitzhak Pindrus. Kahn said haredim were not ideological settlers. "If this government decides to evacuate Betar Illit, residents will take their compensation check and be out in a day," he said, adding that "it seems unlikely that we will be evacuated from here." A shortage of cheap housing in older, established haredi cities is pushing thousands of haredi families to outlying cities such as Beit Shemesh and Ashdod. Many are also moving to Betar Illit and Modi'in Illit (Kiryat Sefer), which is also over the Green Line. Yariv Oppenheimer, director-general of Peace Now, said in response that the government was exploiting haredim's need for cheap housing in closed settlements near Jerusalem to populate the West Bank. "Instead of offering solutions in places like El Ad, they are taking them by force and making them into settlers," he said. Oppenheimer said it was not a new phenomenon, adding that he pointed it out in an article three years ago. Construction and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit said the building was on land inside settlement blocs that would remain a part of Israel in any final peace agreement with the Palestinians. "I do not see a situation in which this land will be returned," he said. Kahn said that in the next six months 600 new housing units will be sold in Betar Illit. The average price is $1,000 per meter and apartments range between three and five rooms. "That will bring the total population to between 33,000 and 35,000," he added. Ma'aleh Adumim's population is 32,000. Betar Illit was ranked the poorest Jewish town by the Central Bureau of Statistics. Many of its male citizens choose to devote their time to Torah study and are not employed. Other haredi cities beyond the Green Line include Tel Zion, east of Ramallah, and Emmanuel in Samaria. However, since these towns are built on private land, the Construction and Housing Ministry is not involved with construction and did not provide data on building growth. Modi'in Illit and Betar Illit, which are both close to Jerusalem, are the two largest haredi cities. According to haredi sources, their success was due in part to wide-based rabbinic support. Even more politically left-leaning rabbis such Rabbi Elazar Menahem Man Shach, the spiritual leader of Lithuanian haredi Jewry who passed away in 2001, permitted living in Kiryat Sefer and Betar Illit. In contrast, Shach never approved of settling in Emmanuel, which is located in the heart of Samaria. Construction and Housing Ministry spokesman Kobi Bleich said haredim were the single largest segment of society contributing to the growth of settlements beyond the Green Line. "They are at the forefront of settlement expansion," he said.