Settlements in Focus: Vol. 1, Issue 3 - "The Bush-Abbas Meeting"

Discussions from the Bush-Abbas Meeting, and answers on settlement construction, Israeli Government approval and funding, "natural" growth, outposts, and more...

Posted on 6/10/05

The Bush-Abbas Meeting

In his May 26, 2005 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that Israel is currently constructing homes for 30,000 settlers in the West Bank. Is this number accurate?

There are 3000-3500 housing units under construction in settlements in the West Bank (i.e., on land never annexed by Israel). Assuming that the average size of a family in those units will be between 5-6 persons, this means housing for 15,000 - 21,000 settlers.

The discrepancy between these numbers and the number cited by President Abbas does not mean that President Abbas was wrong or was being dishonest. Rather, it reflects the fact that Israelis and Palestinians do not necessarily mean the same thing when talking about settlements. President Abbas was probably including in his total the estimated 1000 housing units currently under construction in Israeli neighborhoods of East Jerusalem - areas incorporated into Israel, by Israeli law, after 1967 but still considered, by the Palestinians and the international community, to be occupied territory and part of the West Bank. When these units are included in the calculation, it is correct to say that housing is under construction for 30,000 people.

Where is the construction taking place? How much is in "blocs" that are near the Green Line and expected by many to remain a part of Israel in the future?

The vast majority of construction of new housing units in West Bank settlements is taking place near the Green Line, with most of the construction planned in coordination with the government's published route for the security barrier. Ongoing construction is focused in four areas: the Jerusalem area, the Kiryat Sefer bloc (north of Jerusalem, along the Green Line), Alfei Menashe (located alongside the large Palestinian city of Qalqilya), and the Ariel bloc (see "Settlements in Focus, Vol. 1, Issue 2 for details on the Ariel bloc). In addition, smaller scale construction continues in settlements that will remain outside the current route of the barrier, as well substantial infrastructure development, including construction of additional bypass roads to serve settlements located outside the barrier.

The construction pattern betrays some basic facts about Israeli settlers and settlement policy. First, it reflects the simple economic reality that demand for new units is higher (and always has been higher) in settlements located close to Israel ("bedroom" communities). This, in turn, underscores the fact that the vast majority of settlers is not motivated to move to the West Bank for ideological reasons, but rather chooses to live in the West Bank for economic, quality-of-life reasons. Moreover, in the current political context, additional elements that are now likely having an impact on demand for settlement housing include considerations of whether or not a given settlement is expected to remain part of Israel under a future peace agreement, and whether or not a settlement is located on the Israeli side of the security barrier.

Second, it betrays a very active strategy of the Government of Israel to strengthen settlements and increase the settler population in areas of the West Bank located within the route of the security barrier (including within the Ariel bloc - an area where, according to the official Israeli government map, the route of the barrier it still not final). This, in turn, bolsters the view that the government is seeking to transform these areas into a new de facto border between Israel and the Palestinians - an effort that involves the de facto Israeli annexation of approximately 10% of the West Bank to Israel.

Regardless of the location of the construction, it is vital to remember that all settlement construction, whether close to or remote from the Green Line, represents unilateral Israeli actions that change the situation on the ground and seek to predetermine the outcome of final future negotiations. Such actions, occurring where anyone can see them and monitored closely by the Palestinians (and the international community), erode confidence, undermine the credibility of Palestinian advocates of a negotiated solution, strengthen extremists, and jeopardize the chance of achieving a negotiated solution to the conflict based on the principle of two states living side by side with peace and security.

For more detailed information about ongoing construction in West Bank settlements, please see Peace Now's latest Settlement Watch report.

Is all of this building approved by the Government of Israel? Is it funded by the Government of Israel?

The massive construction in the settlements is officially approved by the government. The State of Israel is still spending millions of dollars every year to entice Israelis to move into the West Bank. Comparatively low housing prices, very generously subsidized mortgages, and a range of incentives offered by the Israeli government to people who move to the West Bank have all had a huge impact on the numbers of Israelis choosing to reside in the West Bank in the last 3 decades. While it would not be accurate to say that the government is paying for the construction, it is correct to state that the government makes it worthwhile (and profitable) for builders and developers to operate in settlements by providing land at little or no cost, by offering mortgage subsidies (which help ensure that new homes will sell), and by taking on the burden of substantial infrastructural development.

This is in contrast to construction in the settlement outposts, which is not officially sanctioned by the government.

For a detailed account of the benefits and subsidies offered to Israelis residing in the West Bank, see "The Land Grab," pp. 57-67 (issued by the Israeli human rights organization B'tselem).

Where is this building having or going to have the biggest impact?

The deeper the settlement's location in the West Bank, the more pronounced its negative impact (and the negative impact of its expansion) on any future political settlement. This is because any future Palestinian state, if it is to be viable, will have to have territorial contiguity. Settlement expansion that prevents such contiguity is antithetical to such a state ever coming into existence. Thus, for instance, continued construction in the Ariel bloc - a bloc that reaches into the heart of the West Bank, and, if connected to Israel, would cut the northern West Bank nearly in half - should be a cause of concern.

In addition, regardless of their proximity to the Green Line, settlements (and the expansion of settlements) that are located in the midst of large Palestinian populated areas have an especially negative impact on the current situation and the prospects for achieving a future negotiated agreement. For example, expansion of the settlements of Alfei Menashe and Zofim should be of concern. These settlements are located close to the Green Line, so in theory their expansion should be of less concern than a settlement located deep inside the West Bank. However, they are also located in the heart of a region containing both a very large Palestinian population (including the major Palestinians cities of Qalqilya and Tulkarm, and surrounding villages) and a very large area of fertile, cultivated land vital to the livelihood of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Palestinian peasants. The rapid and massive expansion of these settlements - facilitated by the construction of the security barrier, which effectively annexes to Israel additional land upon which the settlement can and are continuing to expand - has had devastating impacts on the daily lives and economy of Palestinians in the entire area.

At the joint press conference following the Bush-Abbas meeting President Bush called on Israel to "stop settlement expansion." Phase I of the Road Map states that Israel "freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)." Is there a difference between these two formulations?

Both of these formulations would appear to require an end to the process of settlement expansion, broadly understood by most people - including the Palestinians and the bulk of the international community - to include population growth, construction, and territorial control. However, the matter is not this straightforward, since key terms and concepts in this debate have been left undefined, perhaps reflecting a lack of consensus on what they should mean or the kind of deliberate ambiguity that has been the hallmark of diplomatic efforts to cope with the core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Most glaringly, the Bush Administration has thus far not clarified, publicly, what either a freeze in "settlement activity" or an end to "settlement expansion" would entail, let alone achieved an agreement with Israel on such definitions. Some observers believe that by calling for an end to "settlement expansion" rather than an end to "settlement activity," the Bush Administration is indicating its acquiescence to an Israeli interpretation of its Road Map obligations, as referred to in the April 18, 2004 letter from Prime Minister Sharon's former Chief of Staff, Dov Weisglass, to then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. While the Road Map says that Israel "freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)," under this interpretation, Israel is meant to distinguish between settlement activity that is within what Weisglass termed a settlement's "construction line" and settlement activity that is outside this line; activity within this line, sometimes referred to as "thickening" settlements, would be permitted, while activity outside the line, representing an "expansion" of the settlement's footprint on the land, would be prohibited. However, the concept of "construction line" has not been formally defined, by the U.S. or Israel, possibly because such a distinction clearly conflicts with the Road Map's requirements in this matter.

While there have been variations in the Bush Administration's articulation of its position regarding settlement expansion, there have been no similar variations in its actual implementation of policy in the matter: the Bush Administration has failed thus far to demonstrate an effective effort to compel Israel to stop expanding settlements. Similarly, while there is debate over the Israeli interpretation of its Road Map obligations, there can be no similar debate over what has been Israeli policy on the ground regarding settlements: Israel has continued to expand settlements, both within and outside the "construction lines," throughout President Bush's first and second term in office, and continues to do so today.

There is a lot of talk about the need to accommodate "natural growth" in settlements. What does this mean?

Natural growth is generally understood to mean growth due to new births. By this measure, the Israeli population in the West Bank is growing rapidly. In fact, on a percentage scale it is growing faster than any community inside Israel proper. The high growth rate has repeatedly been used by Israeli policymakers as a pretext to justify and defend the expansion of settlements, including the establishment of new settlements under the guise of new "neighborhoods" or new "sections" of existing ones. Challenged in May 2003 by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell about the ongoing construction in the settlements, Prime Minister Sharon famously responded, "What do you want, for a pregnant woman to have an abortion just because she is a settler?"

However, Sharon's implicit argument - that new construction in settlements is necessary to accommodate population growth due to new births - is not supported by the facts. As shown in the chart (below), there is a significant gap between the "natural growth" rate (growth due to births) and the total growth rate (growth of the total population due to all sources, including migration) in the settlements. These numbers do not take into account other elements that impact the growth rate of a community, ignoring, for instance, the unknown numbers of children born in settlements that grow up and choose to make their lives inside Israel (or elsewhere). Regardless, it is clear that while natural growth has always been a strong component of total growth (primarily due to the large percentage of Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox Jews in the settlements), throughout most of the 1990's, natural growth represented less than 50% of the total growth rate of the settlement population (migration was the main component of growth). The Intifada, and the resulting drop in migration to the settlements, appears to have reversed this ratio. Nonetheless, with Israel currently constructing 3000-3500 housing units in the West Bank, sufficient to accommodate around 20,000 settlers (discussed above) it is clear that this new pool of homes clearly outstrips the natural growth needs of settlers.

Growth of the Jewish Population of the WB and Gaza (source Israeli CBS)

Year 1996 1997 1998 1999

Total population 150,200 160,200 172,200 183,900

Total increase 11,600 10,000 10,000 11,700
over prior year

Total increase due 4400 5100 5500 5700
to natural growth

Natural growth as 40% 51% 55% 49%
% of total growth

Year 2000 2001 2002 2003

Total population 198,300 208,300 220,200 231,800

Total increase 14,400 10,000 11,900 11,600
over prior year

Total increase due 6300 6600 7100 7700
to natural growth

Natural growth as 44% 66% 60% 66%
% of total growth

At the press conference President Bush also called on Israel to remove "unauthorized" outposts, while the Road Map requires Israel to dismantle "outposts erected since March 2001." Is there a difference between these two formulations?

These two formulations do not mean the same thing. The Road Map refers to those new settlements (also referred to as outposts) established during Prime Minister Sharon's tenure, unequivocally requiring the dismantling of all such outposts, regardless of any post facto moves by Israel to authorize their existence. The Sharon government has long sought to create an artificial distinction between those outposts that have been approved according to a government decision, often issued after the outpost's establishment ("authorized" outposts) and those outposts established without any authorization, before or after the fact ("unauthorized" outposts).

President Bush has increasingly adopted the Israeli terminology without clarifying whether this means he has accepted the Israeli assumptions that accompany it. Thus far there has not been any sustained U.S. effort to press Israel to implement its commitment to remove outposts, however defined, so there has not yet been an opportunity to observe, in practice, what standard the U.S. expects Israel to meet. Certainly the shift in terminology suggests that the United States may be prepared to accept a less comprehensive standard than the one established in the Road Map.

What is the current status of outposts in the West Bank? Has Israeli government policy changed?

Since 1996, around 120 settlement outposts have been established across the West Bank, of which around 101 remain today (note: the Sasson Report, which included outposts established prior to 1996, talked about 105 outposts, but noted also that the author was not given complete information abut the outposts and thus could not make a definitive judgment about the total number). No outposts have been evacuated since the beginning of 2005, while one new outpost (Bnei Adam) has been established. At the same time, there is currently ongoing construction of permanent structures in 17 outposts. The Government of Israel committed to the United States under the Road Map to dismantle all outposts erected after March 2001. The number of outposts the Government of Israel still needs to evacuate to live up to its commitment to the United States is around 50. For the full outpost report go HERE.

With regards to Israeli policy and outposts, it should be recalled that at the request of Prime Minister Sharon, Israeli attorney Talia Sasson prepared an exhaustive report on the issue of Israeli settlement outposts in the West Bank. Delivered in March 2005, the report noted that:

"The 'engine' behind a decision to establish outposts are regional councils in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, settlers and activists, imbued with ideology and motivation to increase Israeli settlement in the Judea, Samaria and Gaza territories. Some of the officials working in the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization, and in the Ministry of Construction & Housing, cooperated with them to promote the unauthorized outposts phenomenon. These actions were apparently inspired by different Ministers of Housing in the relevant times, either by overlooking or by actual encouragement and support, with additional support from other Ministries, initiated either by officials or by the political echelon of each Ministry. The result was that the executive echelon, so to speak, became the deciding echelon, with no authorization, in contrary to government resolutions, bearing no political or public responsibility, which by nature of things rests upon the political echelon. All of this with massive financing by the State of Israel, with no appropriate transparency, no criteria. The establishment of unauthorized outposts violates standard procedure, good governing rules, and especially an ongoing bold law violation. Furthermore, the State authorities speak two voices. Sometimes grant, and sometimes prevent. Rules have become flexible. One hand builds outposts, the other invests money and force to evacuate them. These actions were not done by individuals only. The problem is State and public authorities took part in breaking the law. They are the ones who financed construction without a resolution by the political echelon, in contrary to government resolutions, with no legal planning status, sometimes not on State owned land, sometimes on private Palestinian property or on survey land. State authorities and public authorities broke the laws, regulations and rules made by the State."

Speaking at Ben Gurion University on June 5, 2005, Ms. Sasson noted:

"Since the report was submitted, nothing has happened," she said. "It was well publicized, and that's good, but everything is continuing. Perhaps the Housing Ministry has closed a few taps, but there has been no operative decision and construction continues in the outposts. The goal of the report was to end the illegal construction... This is not a matter of political outlook; we are talking about the state violating its own laws, and when a state's own authorities break the law, this is a severe blow to the rule of law. When such things happen, the democratic system is liable to be undermined."

At the press conference President Bush also said that "changes to the 1949 Armistice lines must be mutually agreed to." Previously, President Bush stated that "It is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949" (in his April 14, 2004 letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon). Is his mention of the 1949 lines significant?

Some analysts have argued, incorrectly, that President Bush's recent invoking of the 1949 armistice lines represents a shift in U.S. policy vis-a-vis the conflict. Invoking the 1949 terminology, as Bush did not only in his comments with President Abbas, but also in his letter to Prime Minister Sharon, is diplomatically and historically correct. The June 1967 line is not a diplomatically recognized term of reference and, in fact, the June 1967 line may not always be the same as the armistice lines. The armistice lines represent the last, recognized, agreed lines in the conflict; slight differences in rhetorical formulations notwithstanding, these lines will be the basis for any future Israeli-Palestinian agreement. In this regard, it is important to recall that in his April 14, 2004 letter to Prime Minister Sharon, President Bush went on to say that "it is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities." This emphasis on mutual agreement to changes in the 1949 armistice lines is consistent with the statement President Bush made at the press conference with President Abbas.

Produced by Dror Etkes, Settlements Watch Director, Peace Now (Israel); Jeff Aronson, Program Director, Foundation for Middle East Peace (USA); and Lara Friedman, Government Relations Director, Americans for Peace Now (USA).