Settlements in Focus: Vol. 1, Issue 16 - "The Russians"

An estimated 10% of the West Bank population is from the former Soviet Union...


The Ariel Settlement is home to many immigrants from the former Soviet Union


Settlements in Focus

"The Russians" in the West Bank settlements (Vol.1, Issue 16)
A publication of Americans for Peace Now

How many immigrants from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) live in West Bank settlements?

While there are no available official statistics on the exact number of FSU immigrants living in the settlements, informed estimates put the number at around 25,000, or about 10% of the total population.

This estimate is supported by data from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. While the CBS data is not broken down by immigrants' country of origin, it does track the number of settlers who are new immigrants to Israel. This data shows that, at the end of 2004, a total of 47,800 of the West Bank settlers were born abroad, of which 27,900 were immigrants who came to Israel after 1990 (Click here for a CBS file with more details). The year 1990 is a key date, since it was the first year of the massive wave of immigration to Israel from the FSU - a wave that involved the immigration of an estimated more than 1 million new immigrants from the FSU.

Clearly, not all of the post-1990 settler immigrants came from the FSU - immigrants from many other places (including the United States, Western Europe, Canada, Latin America, India, and Ethiopia) have found their way to West Bank settlements over the past 15 years. At the same time, an unknown number of FSU immigrants moved to settlements prior to the immigration wave of the 1990s. Taking these factors into account, the 25,000 number is considered a reasonable estimate of the current FSU immigrant settler population.

In addition, it should be noted that the CBS numbers do not take into account children of FSU immigrants born in Israel or the occupied territories.

How does this compare to the percentage of FSU immigrants in the overall Israeli population?

At the end of 2004, the total Israeli population was 6,869,500. Of this total, 1,010,900 were people who immigrated to Israel after 1990 - the overwhelming majority of whom came from the FSU. These immigrants thus represent, in 2004 numbers, just under 15% of the total Israeli population, and over 18% of the Jewish population, which at the end of 2004 was 5,529,300. It should be noted that this latter number also includes, in addition to Jews, the small number of non-Jewish, non-Arab citizens of Israel. For CBS population statistics, see: and

Comparing these numbers to the settler population, it appears that FSU immigrants are under-represented in the settlements. This is true both as a ratio to the total Israeli population (approx. 15% inside Israel, vs. approx. 10% in the settlements), and it is especially true as a ratio to the total Israeli non-Arab population (18% inside Israel, vs. 10% in the settlements). The latter ratio is in fact the more telling one, since the overall settler population is drawn exclusively from Israel's non-Arab population (i.e., Israeli Arabs don't live in West Bank settlements).

Is there a break down of how many FSU immigrant moved to the West Bank settlements?

As noted earlier, while official statistics track new immigrants moving to the West Bank settlements, they do not break these new immigrants down by country of origin. Nonetheless, the statistics show a clear correlation between the immigration trends of people coming to Israel from the former Soviet Union and the numbers of new immigrants moving to the settlements. For instance, as the chart below shows, the number of new immigrants from Europe increased by 1030% from 1989-1990. During that same period, the number of new immigrants moving to the settlements increased 1500%.

Year Total immigration from Europe Total immigration from Asia Total of new immigrants who moved to the West Bank





































































Note: The CBS statistics state "Until 1995 the Asian republics of the former USSR were included in Europe; as of 1996 they are included in Asia." A dramatic rise in immigrants in the "Asia" category correlates to this re-categorization, as well as to a concurrent reduction in the number of immigrants in the "Europe" category.

Is the FSU immigrant portion of the settler population expanding faster than the non-FSU immigrant settler population?

Overall the numbers of FSU immigrants (and the total number of new immigrants) to Israel has been declining since 1990 (see: This decline in overall immigration has no doubt impacted the number of the FSU immigrants who have moved to the West Bank in recent years. In addition, as will be discussed below, only a small percentage of FSU immigrants are ideologically motivated to move to settlements. While a large number of immigrants from the FSU moved almost directly from the FSU to settlements (often without a clear understanding of where they were going), for those who initially settled inside Israel, it does not appear that there is any trend to relocate to settlements - a phenomenon likely reinforced by the outbreak of the second Intifada.

In terms of "natural growth," FSU immigrants tend to have small families, with fewer children per family than the national average in Israel. It is thus reasonable to assume that the FSU immigrant portion of the settler population is not contributing big numbers to the total population growth of the settlers.

Where do the settlers from the FSU live?

There is one settlement and one outpost that are known as being home primarily to "Russians" - the isolated Gush Etzion settlement of Kfar Eldad, with a population of few dozen families, and the outpost of "Nofei Nehemya," located east of Ariel.

However, most of the FSU settlers live in the large, urban settlements like Ma'ale Adumim and Ariel. In Ariel - a settlement whose population nearly doubled from 7000 at the end of 1989 (just before the influx of FSU immigrants began) to 13,800 in 1995. To view a chart tracking Ariel's population growth, see:

In Ariel, FSU immigrants are estimated to represent about 50% of the total population. The FSU immigrants' proclivity for the large, urban settlements reflects the fact that most of the settlers come from an urban environment, and most are attracted to the settlements for quality-of-life reasons, rather than ideology. That is, they move to certain settlements because these settlements afford them a desired lifestyle and social/economic atmosphere, at a much lower cost than they would have to pay inside Israel, and with relatively easy access to employment and social services inside Israel. Moreover, the larger settlements quickly develop a critical mass of immigrant settlers - once a few FSU immigrants have established themselves there, new FSU settlers are more likely to join them, creating a sub-community within the settlement with its own linguistic and cultural ties (and also religious ties, since some of the FSU immigrants are Christians). This is certainly the case in Ariel, where one is as likely to hear Russian spoken as Hebrew, and where Christmas decorations are in evidence during that holiday. Moreover, certain settler leaders - most notably Ariel's mayor Ron Nachman - have made attracting FSU immigrants to their settlement a priority, and have actively encouraged them to move to his community. An example of these efforts is Ariel's Russian-language website. For new immigrants to a strange country, this kind of welcome - coupled with various economic incentives - has often proven very appealing (for more on Ariel, see below).

Another large center of FSU immigrant settlers is Kiryat Arba, where it appears many very low-income FSU immigrants were attracted due to low rents offered in that settlement. It is estimated that FSU immigrants may represent as much as 50% of the total population of Kiryat Arba - a settlement whose population experienced substantial growth in the 1990s, nearly doubling from 3870 at the end of 1989, to 6240 at the end of 1999. To view a chart tracking Kiryat Arba's population growth, see:

Other settlements which are known to have a relatively high percentage of FSU immigrants among their populations are Tekoa', Nokdim, Karnei Shomron and Ginot Shomron.

In addition, the northern West Bank settlement of Sa Nur, which was evacuated as part of the disengagement plan, was home for many years to a very small colony of Russian artists, although many of them left after the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000.

Finally, in July 2004 it was announced that the World Zionist Organization's Settlement Division and the Jordan Valley Regional Settlement Council were collaborating on plans to establish a "Russians-only" settlement in the Jordan Valley. As described in press reports, the initiative included plans for an industrial center to provide job opportunities for immigrants from the former Soviet Union with backgrounds in science. According to a report in the Israeli mass circulation daily paper Yediot Ahronoth, the plan was being supported by foreign investors. The paper also reported that it was being supported by a group of Russian immigrants called the "Aliyah Battalion" - people who had served as officers in the Russian army and now volunteer to protect West Bank settlements. There have been no further reports on the progress of the plan, which so far has apparently not been implemented.

Did all the FSU settlers deliberately move to the occupied territory?

It appears that many of the FSU immigrants may have moved to settlements without understanding that they were moving into the center of a highly contentious international land dispute. The following (grammatically awkward) article, from the August 30, 2001 online English-language edition of the Russian daily Pravda notes:

"Some immigrants from the countries of the former Soviet Union do not even suspect that they live on territories which Palestinians count as theirs. When the peace process was gathered strength, everything was quiet in the Ariel village on the West Bank. But as the Arab-Jewish standoff started to show, the settlers' peaceful life was coming to an end. First, many immigrants could not understand why their cars were thrown at with stones. It has turned out that the territories their were settled are to become part of the future Palestinian state.

"Since then, the number of settlers on such territories has been decreasing rapidly. The 'breaches' have been filled with immigrants from FSU. According to the AP news agency, many were unaware that they were settled on 'Arab territories' which have by now found themselves virtually in the 'war zone.' ...Over the last 2 years, recruiters from Ariel have managed to lure 3,000 people to emigrate there from FSU.

"...Israeli settlements are kind of stumbling block which both sides come across during negotiations. Arabs are angry that Israeli settle their citizens on the territories of the future Palestinian state. The USA and advocates of peace talks count those settlements as a serious obstacle for the peace process. The issue became really burning in 1990, when Premier Itzhak Shamir stated that Israel should hold the West Bank for further generations and for the mass emigration of Soviet Jews. Israel officials have often asserted that the mushrooming of settlements on Arab territories occurs at the expense of birth rate. In reality, this growth was created artificially at the expense of numerous immigrants. So, many FSU residents have willy-nilly found themselves on the embroiled in the thick of the battle."

In an interview with an Australian journalist, Russian settlers in Ariel were even more categorical:

"Irena Gurskay, with her daughter, and brother, Pavel Baraz, came to Ariel about a month ago. They came not for religious reasons but for the economic opportunities. ...Irena and Pavel don't really care about the political situation. In Russia, they were told about Ariel's 26 schools, the university and first-class medical care, but not the fact that it sits in the occupied territories.

"PAVEL BARAZ, (Translation): I never went into details. I'm not interested in politics. If people live here, that means they can."

What is the religious orientation of the FSU settlers?

Most of the immigrants from the FSU are not practicing religious Jews. The ban on any religious ceremonial life, which was brutally enforced on all religious groups in the former Soviet Union, left its mark on the Jewish population. While some held firmly to their Jewish identity and religion, most went through a process of secularization and acculturation. Moreover, inter-marriages are very common among the Jews in the FSU, and there are many examples of mixed families who are mixing several religious and cultural affiliations. It should be noted that the non-Jewish portion of the FSU immigrant population is also generally very secular.

What is the political orientation of the FSU settlers?

Although no information is available about the voting patterns of FSU immigrants in the West Bank specifically, the "Russian vote" in general is considered to be one of Israel's few - and (at nearly 20% of Israel's non-Arab population and 12% of the overall electorate) very important - swing votes. As a highly secular community, it has much in common with the Israeli left. But, due to its hard-line views on the peace process, it is also a natural constituency for right-wing parties. Support from this community was instrumental in Rabin's 1992 victory, Netanyahu's win in 1996, Barak's victory in 1999, Sharon's victories in 2001 and 2003, and the emergence of Shinui (a secularist party) as Israel's third-largest party in 2003.

In the 2003 elections, this community split its vote between the hard-right National Union party, led by FSU immigrant Avigdor Leiberman (28%); Likud (26%); Shinui (19%); and Yisrael B'Aliyah, led by FSU immigrant Natan Sharansky (17%). This is a major shift from the 1999 elections, when Labor captured 54% of the Russian vote.

One common thread in the voting behavior of the FSU immigrants is the support for non-religious parties. Pollsters and political scientists have also identified a strong right-wing bias in terms of their views on peace and security issues. According to Eduard Kuznetsov, editor of the major Israeli Russian-language newspaper Vesti, FSU immigrants in Israel are "the descendants of an imperial attitude. Land is sacred. And though only 1 percent of them live in the occupied territories, they have an instinctive hatred of Arabs and see no reason to make any concessions."

Given the secularism of the overall FSU population, it is interesting to note that some leaders of the "refuseniks" (Jewish nationalists who fought the Soviet Union for the right to emigrate) have a close relationship with the religious-nationalist camp. This is probably the result of a stronger religious identity and sense of Jewish nationalism among the refuseniks -- views that closely correlate with the national-religious ideology. (See Settlements in Focus Vol. 1, Issue 12 for more information about religious-nationalist ideology).

What role do FSU immigrants play in Israeli national politics?

While FSU immigrants have risen to prominence in parties across the Israeli political spectrum, only two, both representing the pro-settler right (Leiberman and Sharansky) have achieved and sustained a high level of political influence. Below is a sample of these FSU immigrants, including current Members of Knesset (MKs) who immigrated from the FSU after 1975, as well as recent government ministers.

  • Victor Brailovsky: Second term Shinui MK.

  • Roman Bronfman: Third term Meretz-Yahad MK (first elected to the Knesset as a part of Yisrael B'aliya).

  • Yuli Edelstein: A current Likud MK who lives in the settlement of Alon Shvut. Edelstein served as Minister of Immigrant Absorption under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

  • Michael Gorlovski: A current Likud MK who lives in the settlement of Nokdim.

  • Avigdor Leiberman: a leader of the National Union party, who lives in the settlement of Nokdim; Leiberman was Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu Chief of Staff and most recently served as Minister of Transportation until he quit over Sharon's disengagement plan. Interesting, Leiberman has been one of the key proponents of a plan that supports land swaps with the Palestinians - he supports swapping Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank for Israeli-Arab communities inside Israel. This position is apparently popular with a large part of the FSU immigrant community, who support both keeping the settlements for Israel and getting rid of Israeli's Arab citizenry. This is the electorate that Leiberman will count on in the next election (March 2006), and recent polls suggest that he may succeed in winning as many as 6-7 seats in the next Knesset.

  • Michael Nudelman: a current MK from the National Union.

  • Natan Sharansky: the FSU's most prominent Israeli immigrant politician, Natan Sharansky, has long been a patron of the settlement movement. In April 1999, Sharansky announced that his political party, "Israel B'Aliyah" would establish its own settlement program, designed to furnish housing in the occupied territories for immigrants coming from the FSU. At the time Sharanksy explained that the first stage of the program would be to bring new FSU immigrants to existing settlements; a second stage would involve the establishment of new settlements expressly for the new FSU immigrants. This settlement program appears to have been stillborn, probably in part due to the fact that immigration to the occupied territories from the FSU peaked in 1999, and has decreased in each year since.

  • Yuri Shtern: A third-term MK from the National Union party (originally elected as part of Israel B'Aliyah).

  • Marina Solodkin: Third-term Kadima MK (originally elected as part of Yisrael B'aliya, then switched to Likud, and now is part of Sharon's new party).

  • Igal Yasinov: First term Shinui MK.

Were there FSU immigrant settlers in Gaza?

There were only a small number of FSU settlers in the Gaza settlements. As noted earlier, FSU immigrants have generally been attracted to the larger, urban settlements. The Gaza settlements, being mainly small ideologically-driven communities and/or communities based on agriculture and services, were thus not a natural fit for the FSU immigrants.

Produced by Dror Etkes, Settlements Watch Director, Peace Now (Israel), and Lara Friedman, Government Relations Director, Americans for Peace Now