What the numbers tell us about the settlements in Judea and Samaria

Among the points of contention between the Israeli and the Palestinian Arabs, the issue of the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria is probably one of the tensest. On one hand, the settlements signify the return of the Jewish people in its ancestral land, a land that was recognized as part of the Jewish homeland by the Balfour Declaration and to which the immigration was encouraged by the British Mandate for Palestine. On the other hand, the settlements are perceived by the PLO as an encroachment on the territory that they claim must become a new independent Arab state in the prospect of a two-state solution to the dispute between Palestinian Arabs and Jews. When Barack Obama became the president of the United States, he adopted a controversial attitude towards the Israeli settlements that was aligned with the PLO claim that “the settlements are an obstacle to peace”. He encouraged the PLO to require the end of any kind of building by Israel in Judea and Samaria  as a precondition for peace talks. He himself demanded a full halt on constructions.

That policy put Benjamin Netanyahu in a dilemma: either (i) he would accept the full halt on constructions and place the Israeli citizens of Judea and Samaria in an unsustainable position of not being allowed to build the housing facilities required by the natural growth of their population for an unpredictably long period of time or (ii) he would turn the demand down and take the risk Israel appear as the party that is not committed to peace negotiation. Despite several attempts by Benjamin Netanyahu to agree on a realistic compromise based on a temporary construction freezing no serious negotiation ever even started under the Obama administration. Eight years have been lost in vain because of the settlement issue. Peace with the Palestinian Arabs seems farther than ever.

The Israeli left took advantage of the lack of diplomatic success in the peace process to try to destabilize Netanyahu, accusing him and his government of being more committed to the “settlers” and the religious Jews than to peace with the Palestinian Arabs, as if caring about the living conditions of the former group could compromise peace with the later group. As a matter of fact, since the Oslo Accords, the Israeli left tries by any means to portrait itself as the sole “peace camp”.  It pictures the Israeli right as opposed to the peace process and in favor of ultimately annexing the entire Judea and Samaria to the state of Israel. Besides the fact that this constitutes a appalling misrepresentation of the mainstream Israeli right, repeating these lies severely damages the international standing of Israel. Furthermore, the narrative of the left is highly hypocritical given that the first post-1967 Israeli settlements beyond the Armistice lines — Kiryat Arba (1972), Ma’ale Adumim (1975), Elkana (1977) — were authorized by the Israeli left during the 1967-1977 decade and that no left-wing government ever limited the repopulation of Judea and Samaria by the Jews [1] any more than a right-wing government. Let us see this by the numbers.

The following graph shows the evolution of the number of Israeli living in Judea and Samaria, from 1972 to 2015. The figures are those displayed on the website of the anti-settlements organization Peace Now. They originate from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (ICBS) [2]. Red sticks stand for the years Israel had a left-wing government, blue sticks for the years with a right-wing government. As the graph shows, the Israeli left allowed the population of Judea and Samaria to grow in the same proportions as the right. It did not put any more restrain on the population transfer to Judea and Samaria than the Israeli right, even at the time when Prime Minister Rabin was negotiating the Oslo Accords. Based on actual figures, the Israeli left has no ground to claim any anti-settlement narrative.There is no difference between right and left in that respect. Since 1985, the population of Judea and Samaria steadily grows at a pace of about 11,300 people per year.

Evolution of the Israeli Population in Judea-Samaria.
Evolution of the Israeli population in Judea-Samaria and of the annual population growth rate (%) between 1972 and 2015 (Data source: ICBS).

On the basis of the same demographic data, some claim that the Israeli right is following a policy in favor of settling a high number of Israeli in Judea and Samaria. Such discourse is typical of leftist political NGOs like B’Tselem, J Street or Peace Now.Their main argument is that the number of Israeli living in Judea and Samaria nearly doubled since the Israeli right came back to power in 2001. The figures are right, but the conclusions are not. A correct analysis requires more scrutiny. In particular the notion that the Israeli right has favored population transfer to Judea and Samaria is wrong.

Let us first notice that the Israeli population in Judea and Samaria grows linearly since the late eighties. If the annual growth rate of the population (in percents per year) had been constant over the years, the population would have grown exponentially. The population growth has been linear from the eighties because the growth rate simultaneously decreased in time over the years. The actual evolution of annual growth rate is plotted on the above graph with a bronze-colored line and data points. The population growth rate was reaching values as high as +30% per year when the second Shamir cabinet took office (October 1986). Since then, it steadily decreased. In 2015 the rate was as low as +3.9% per year, while it was rising at a value of +13.7% per year in 1986. Paradoxically, while the Israeli left and anti-settlement NGOs hold it responsible of intensifying the Jewish repopulation of Judea and Samaria, Netanyahu’s government has been the one — since the Six Day War! — that limited the most the settlement of new Israeli families in Judea and Samaria, almost reducing the annual population growth rate to its irreducible value: the natural population growth due to new births, as will be shown soon. For comparison purposes, the growth rates were equal to +9.0% and +7.3% per year when Rabin and Barak cabinets were respectively in charge. These figures are notably higher than the natural Judea-Samaria population growth rate and are evidence of a vivid population flux towards the territories beyond the Armistice line.

According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (figures of 2013), each year the Israeli population rises by 2.1% due to new births and decreases by 0.5% due to deaths.This results in a net natural growth rate of +1.6% per year (when aliyah is taken into account the population growth rate reaches +1.9%). According to the same statistics, 12,129 new births were registered in Israeli localities in Judea-Samaria in 2013. Put in relation to a total population of 356,500 people in 2013, this corresponds to a population growth rate of 3.4% due to new births. This rate is much higher than the average national new-births rate because the proportion of very religious families is significantly larger in Judea and Samaria compared to the rest of the country (ultra-orthodox Jews, for instance, tend to have more children than the average, in a proportion of 6.9 to 3). Simultaneously, the annual deaths rate in Judea-Samaria is much lower than the national average (because the population is younger): it is equal to 0.15% (figures of 2013). One can thus compute that the natural population growth rate in Judea-Samaria is equal to +3.25% per year.

Since Benjamin Netanyahu replaced Ehud Olmert as the prime minister of Israel, the growth rate of the Israeli population in Judea and Samaria dropped from 5.3% per year (in 2009) to 3.9% per year (in 2015). Under no other government, was the actual population growth rate so close to the natural growth rate. The new settlements of Israeli citizens in Judea and Samaria in 2015 account for merely 0.65% of the total population, i.e. 2,500 people, and for only 16.4% of the annual population increase. For comparison purposes, when Rabin was in office, new settlements accounted for more than 8,000 people per year, and about 70% of the annual population increase in Judea-Samaria.

When talking about the Jewish settlements, it is important to distinguish between (i) policies allowing for population transfer to Judea and Samaria (pro-settlement policies) and (ii) policies designed to improve the living conditions of people who settled there in the past, like allowing for new homes, schools, hospitals etc. to be build in the existing settlements (pro-settlers policies). The later do no harm to peace. Since the eighties, all governments — left and right — engaged in reducing the population transfer to Judea and Samaria. No government ever stopped it completely. The reduction has been continuous and Netanyahu’s government, often designated as “pro-settlement” by the opposition, is the one that the most drastically limited the settlement of new Israeli families in Judea and Samaria. One can call Netanyahu’s government pro-settlers, but it is certainly not pro-settlement [3].

[1] The Jews were expelled from the Palestinian territories conquered by Jordan in the 1948 War. Many lived there, in particular in Jerusalem and its neighborhood. Back in 1882, 8% of the Jerusalemites were Jews. In 1946, 49% of the population was Jewish : that represents 100,000 Jews. In Hebron, lived a small Jewish community, one of the oldest in Palestine (remember the 1929 Hebron massacre). The British Mandate for Palestine encouraged Jews to settle in any part of Palestine (from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea) and allowed them to acquire land. In 1945, Jews privately held land in the City of Jerusalem as well as in the southern, in the western, eastern and northern neighborhoods (see the detailed map below). Between Jericho and the north of the Dead Sea, a large portion of public land was conceded by the British Government to the Jewish entrepreneur Moshe Novomeysky for the industrial extraction of potash from the Dead Sea. A large industrial complex was located there employing both Arabs and Jews ; the Kyala kibbutz was created in 1929 for the Jewish workers. Everything was destroyed in 1948.

Map showing land held by Jews in Palestine on March 31, 1945 (source: Hadawi, Sami. Palestine Arab Refugee Office, 1949, Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C. 20540-4650 dcu, public domain)

[2] The archives of the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics are available for consultation. Most documents are in Hebrew, but some are available in English or are bilingual. Population data from 1994 to 2015 can be retrieved here. Verification shows that data from 2005 is accurate, but small discrepancies (less than 5% overestimation of the population) where observed for older data.

[3] Just a few days ago, Netanyahu himself declared in the press “There is no government that does more for the settlement [movement] in Israel than the one under my leadership.” Is there any contradiction with the above ? Not at all. Netanyahu focuses on what he does for the people who already live in Judea and Samaria, the so-called “settlement movement” or as The Times of Israel rightly translates it in the title of its article: “the settlers”. The new constructions are for the families of the old settlers. This is again an example of a pro-settlers policy as opposed to a pro-settlement policy.

About the Author
Edouard Brainis is a Belgian citizen. He is also a Jew. Not any Jew, but one born in Ukraine at the time it was still part of the Soviet Union. It certainly means something. Science and politics are two of his passions. A third one is Israel. This blog is about Zionism, Israel advocacy and modern anti-Semitism.