Promoting Peace in Israel
We often hear about “Settlements blocs", mainly from Israeli politicians who declare that any Israeli settlement freeze will not include these areas. What are these blocs?
“Settlement bloc” is an informal term, referring to areas in the West Bank where clusters of settlements have been established in relatively close proximity to one another. In the current political context, the term “settlement bloc” has become a code name for those settlements that are supposedly within the Israeli national “consensus” as being settlements that should and likely will remain part of Israel under any future peace agreement.
It must be emphasized that these “blocs” have no legal definition or standing, either under Israeli or international law. The blocs and the settlements they contain are not recognized by the Palestinians or the international community as having any special status compared to other settlements, either now or in terms of a future peace agreement. For its part, Israel has always left the size and borders of the blocs undefined, allowing their informal borders to grow year after year, as construction has systematically thickened the blocs and expanded them to include settlements and land located at a greater distance from their centers. At present, the best indication of Israel’s definition of the blocs is the route of the security barrier, with the barrier in effect defining the blocs (i.e., what is kept on the Israeli side of the barrier is part of that area’s bloc, what is left on the Palestinian side of the barrier is not).
What is US policy regarding construction in the settlement blocs?
On April 14, 2004, in the context of discussions over Israeli plans to evacuate its settlements in Gaza, U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon exchanged letters expressing their commitments and understandings related to the Roadmap, the disengagement plan, and the overall parameters of Israeli-Palestinian peace. In his letter to Sharon, Bush included language that appeared to constitute U.S. approval, or at least tacit acceptance, of the Israeli demand that under any future peace agreement, areas of the West Bank that are home to large Israeli populations would become part of Israel. The letter stated:
“…As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338. In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, 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, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. 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.” (Emphasis added by SiF authors).
Advocates of the West Bank settlement enterprise, including in the Israeli government, immediately began arguing that this language meant, in effect, that the U.S. was giving a green light to continued expansion of settlements in areas of the West Bank that constitute “already existing major Israeli population centers” – code for what Israel usually calls “settlement blocs.” Then, earlier this month, the Washington Post broke the story that, according to Israeli officials, the Bush letter was actually part of a secret U.S. agreement to permit Israel to continue building in these areas. Administration officials have strongly denied that there was any such secret agreement.
We have no way of knowing whether there was a behind-the-scenes secret agreement – or even an informal understanding based on winks and nods – under which the U.S. gave Israel the go-ahead for new construction in settlement population centers. What we do know is what has happened on the ground: since the Bush letter, Israeli construction in these areas has continued and even intensified, and efforts to oppose it have run into the argument: "but everyone knows these places are going to remain part of Israel anyway, so why should anyone invest political capital in stopping this construction?" We also know that U.S. public objections to settlement expansion in these areas have been minimal.
Thus, the question of a "secret" agreement is something of a red herring. Secret agreement or no secret agreement, Israeli construction in and around "already existing major Israeli population centers" in the West Bank has continued without pause, and continues to this day. Similarly, we have seen relentless construction of roads and other infrastructure to facilitate their expansion, erase the Green Line, and connect them to/integrate them into Israel. We have also witnessed the establishment and expansion of a security regime that in effect seals off the West Bank from these areas and isolates the Palestinians caught inside them.
The Bush Administration offered no specific definition of "already existing major Israeli population centers," and both the press and the general population has interpreted the phrase as equivalent to what Israel has generally referred to as "settlement blocs."
Is construction in settlement blocs permitted under the Roadmap?
No. According to Phase I of the Roadmap, "Consistent with the Mitchell Report, GOI [the Government of Israel] freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)." There is no implicit or explicit reference to settlement blocs having any special status under which settlement activity in them – as opposed to anywhere else – may continue. Indeed, the inclusion of the explicit statement regarding the requirement for a freeze on so-called "natural growth" would seem to make it compellingly clear that the Roadmap applies especially in settlement blocs, where the demands for new housing caused by "natural growth" would be the strongest. (For the full text of the Roadmap click here).
Are settlement blocs really part of an Israeli "national consensus," and if so, why?
First, it is important to note that around 20% of Israel's citizens are Arab, and this portion of the population generally does not support the view that Israel should or must hold onto settlement blocs. Thus, when observers – Israeli or non-Israeli – refer to the "national consensus" on settlements, they are by definition excluding the opinions of around one-fifth of the country's citizens. Moreover, even among Israeli Jews there is not an actual consensus, but rather a spectrum of views, including those adamantly opposed to Israel keeping any settlements and those adamantly in favor of Israel keeping all settlements. There are also many Israeli Jews who view the attainment of peace – not the keeping of settlement blocs – as the most important goal of peace negotiations, and who believe that the decision over whether or not Israel will get to keep settlement blocs must be left to the negotiating table.
Keeping all of this in mind, a number of different factors are responsible for the fact that, today, Israeli politicians can argue with some accuracy that the majority of Israeli Jews are in favor of keeping settlements blocs. One of the main reasons, of course, is that over the years, almost all Israeli governments have invested heavily in making the settlement blocs seem like an integral part of the state of Israel, even without officially annexing them to Israel. More specifically:
Size: Unlike the stereotype of a settlement as a small pastoral village, the settlements that anchor the settlement blocs were built in general as large urban settlements. This accounts for the fact that overall, around three-quarters of all of the settlers live in "settlement blocs" that are located on the Israeli side of West Bank barrier. Settlements like Ma'ale Adumim, Modi'in Illit and Beitar Illit (all of which have been officially named 'cities' by Israel) are each home to more than 30,000 people, and are surrounded by smaller "suburb" settlements. Looking at this reality on the ground, it is difficult for Israelis to believe that they might one day be evacuated, especially given that the government has continued to build in these areas on a large scale throughout the recent years, including during periods of negotiations with the Palestinians.
Location: Most (but not all) of the settlements in the "settlement blocs" are located relatively close to the Green Line and to major cities in Israel. Most are integrated closely into Israeli life, with residents commuting to Israel for work, school, and social activities. With the routing of the security barrier, which leaves most of the settlements blocs on the Israeli side of the barrier, the popular sense that these areas are part of Israel is validated and enhanced. This of course raises the question: is it because the majority of Israeli Jews support keeping these settlements that they are included on the Israeli side of the barrier, or is it because they are included on the Israeli side of the barrier that the majority of Israeli Jews have come to believe that Israeli should keep them?
Transportation Integration: Over the years, Israel has invested huge sums of money to build an excellent system of highways that connect the settlements within the blocs to each other and to Israel, bypassing neighboring Palestinian towns and villages completely and effectively erasing the Green Line. This transportation integration strongly impacts perceptions, creating a situation where for the average Israeli, the distinction between Israel and the West Bank is increasingly blurred. For example, when an Israeli drives from Tel Aviv to Ariel (a settlement located deep inside the West Bank, but less than an hour's drive from Tel Aviv) or from Jerusalem to Ma'ale Adumim (a 10-minute drive), he/she will likely not see any sign that they have crossed into the West Bank, and he/she will likely see almost no Palestinian cars or houses. (For more details on roads in the West Bank click here)
Population Type – Non-Ideological Population: In general, the settlers who live in the blocs don't come to the settlements for ideological reasons and don't think of themselves as settlers; rather, they come in search of a better quality of life and better value for their money. Thus, most of these settlers come from the Israeli mainstream, and as a result, they are much easier for the mainstream of the Israeli population (and political leaders) to relate to and sympathize with than the ideological settlers living deeper inside the West Bank. (For more details on the quality of life settlers click here)
Population Type – The ultra-Orthodox: In the early 1980's a decision was made to begin building new settlements specifically for the ultra-Orthodox (the Haredim). Previously, the ultra-Orthodox were not part of the settlement enterprise, being ideologically distinct from the national religious movement that was the backbone of the settler movement. However, the government recognized that with the very fast growth rate of the ultra-Orthodox population (where most families have a large number of children), their preference for homogeneous communities, and their demand for cheap housing (most ultra-Orthodox adult males spend their lives in study, and thus do not earn an income), this population was ideal for anchoring and filling out settlement blocs in key locations. Over time, ultra-Orthodox settlements have become the primary generators of growth in settlement blocs located both north and south of Jerusalem. As a result, the ultra-Orthodox political parties, who represent the interests of this population and play a key role either within, or in opposition to, every Israeli government, joined the fight in support of construction in the settlement blocs, and in support of permanent Israeli control over these areas. (For more details on ultra-Orthodox settlers click here)
Domestic Political Trends: Over the years there has been a gradual change in how the Israeli public views settlements. In the early days of the settlement enterprise (post-1967 through the early 1990s and the beginning of the Oslo peace process), settlements appealed to the Israeli public on a deep, emotional level, with people seeing them to a great degree as a strategic security necessity, and viewing the settlers as the present-day equivalent of the earlier Jews who fought to create the state of Israel. However, with the onset of the era of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking there has been the growing recognition that settlements not only are not strategic security assets, but rather are liabilities. We have thus seen a steady decline in support for the more isolated settlements, with most Israelis today already accepting the fact that, in the end, Israel will need to evacuate most of them (this trend was clearly on display both with the wide support in Israel for the evacuation of settlements from Gaza and with the election of Prime Minister Olmert on a platform that called for further settlement evacuations in the West Bank). As the settler movement realized that it probably lost the fight for the isolated settlements, it started to focus its efforts on making sure that the "blocs," defined as expansively as possible, are supported by the Israeli public.
The Peace Process: When Prime Minister Olmert declared in Annapolis in November 2007 that Israel would freeze settlement construction, the settlers and their supporters immediately began to erode this freeze with pressure to build more settlement units first in East Jerusalem (another area that is supposedly within the " national consensus") and then in the settlement blocs. When the ultra-Orthodox parties joined the pressure, in particular with respect to a new neighborhood in Givat Ze'ev to be built especially for the ultra-Orthodox, Olmert caved to the pressure and approved the construction.
Where are the settlement blocs and what do they contain?
As noted above, "settlement blocs" have never been officially defined, and different politicians make use of the term according to their own interests and agendas. Some might define the "blocs" as including only settlements that are very close to the Green Line, while others might also add settlements located further inside the West Bank. In many ways, the fact that this phrase was never defined makes it easier for the government of Israel to allow construction in many settlements in the West Bank.
Assuming, as we do, that the route of the barrier is a good indication of Israel's intentions with respect to which settlements it hopes to keep in any peace agreement, then the following settlement "blocs" emerge:
> the "Greater Jerusalem blocs," referring to:
• the "E-1/Ma'ale Adumim bloc" Located east of Jerusalem and anchored by the settlement-city of Ma'ale Adumim, the bloc comprises 5 settlements with a total population of around 36,000 settlers, and stretches across 15,034 acres of land. It also includes the as-yet undeveloped but much-planned E-1 (which so far is home only to a new Israeli police station). Due to the topography of the surrounding area, this bloc in effect divides the West Bank between north and south, preventing the establishment of a viable Palestinian state with territorial contiguity, and isolating East Jerusalem from the West Bank. (For more details click here)
• the "Giv'at Ze'ev bloc" Located northwest of Jerusalem and southwest of Ramallah, and stretching across 6,246 acres of land, this bloc includes the settlement-town of Giva't Ze'ev and another 4 settlements, with a total population of around 13,000 settlers. The government of Israel has recently approved the construction of a huge new neighborhood in Giva't Ze'ev, Agan Ha'ayalot, with hundreds of housing units intended for ultra-Orthodox residents.
• the "Etzion bloc" Located southwest of Jerusalem and west of Bethlehem, this bloc includes the huge ultra-Orthodox city of Beitar Illit and another 9 settlements, with a total population of approximately 46,000 settlers. It stretches across a little over 18,000 acres of land. (For more details on the Etzion bloc click here and here).
> the "Modi'in Illit bloc" Located northwest of Jerusalem, near the Green line, this bloc comprises about 2,800 acres of land, home to 4 settlements with a total population of approximately 41,000 settlers, anchored by the large ultra-Orthodox settlement of Modi'in Illit. Modi'in Illit was originally called Qiryat Sefer; changing the name to "Modi'in Illit" (literally, "upper Modi'in") represented an effective way of blurring the Green Line by making it appear that the settlement is a suburb of the Israeli city of Modi'in (located just across the Green Line). (For details of illegal construction in Modi'in Illit click here)
> the "Ariel bloc" This bloc is actually a settlement "finger" extending from the Green Line (south of the Palestinian city of Qalqilya) deep into the West Bank, delimited to the east by the settlement city of Ariel (located almost in the middle of the West Bank), and to the south by the settlement of Bet Arye, with two main road "corridors" connecting it to the Green Line. The bloc, which extends across a little more than 20,000 acres, includes 13 settlements with a total population of approximately 44,000 settlers, and includes numerous illegal outposts established mainly in the past few years. (For more details about the Ariel bloc click here)
> the "Karnei Shomron bloc" This bloc is another settlement "finger" extending from the Green Line (near the Palestinian city of Qalqilya) deep into the West Bank, comprising 8 settlements with a total population of around 16,000. The bloc, which stretches over almost 20,000 acres, is anchored by the settlements of Alfei Menashe (located near the Green Line), Karni Shomron (located about halfway between the Green Line and the West Bank city of Nablus), and Kedumim (located northeast of both Aflei Menashe and Karni Shomron, about 6 km west of Nablus). The bloc includes other small settlements and a number of illegal outposts. (One might include in the bloc the settlements of Tzofim and Sali't which are located north of the bloc and much closer to the Green Line, although due to the barrier, these settlements are cut off from the rest of the bloc, except through Israel). Except for Alfei Menashe (and Tzofim and Sali't) all the settlements in this bloc are located outside the route the barrier as currently constructed, but within the planned route of additional barrier construction.
Aren't most of these areas going to end up part of Israel anyway?
Regardless of who may end up in control of or with sovereignty over these areas under a future peace agreement, if Israel is serious about wanting to make peace with the Palestinians, the future of these areas must be left to negotiations and not determined by unilateral acts. This is all the more true at a time when President Abbas and his pro-peace Palestinian Authority need to demonstrate to the Palestinian people that diplomacy and negotiations are the only route to achieving Palestinian aspirations. Unilateral acts by Israel only undermine President Abbas and the hopes for achieving peace and a two state solution. Such acts also publicly defy and embarrass the United States, waste goodwill towards Israel around the world, and pointlessly consume valuable Israeli political capital.
It is worth mentioning that under the only detailed agreement ever achieved between Israelis and Palestinians – the model peace agreement called the Geneva Accords – the Palestinians (many of whom were and remain senior and influential political figures) agreed to Israel's annexation of some settlement blocs, in exchange for equal land swaps. However, such a negotiated agreement is far different from Israel acting unilaterally to annex territory, and it is important to note that the areas the Palestinian agreed would be ceded to Israel were far more modest than the expansive blocs of settlements and surrounding lands that Israel has de facto annexed with the security barrier. Indeed, the Geneva experience makes clear that any serious peace effort will have to recognize that settlement "fingers" stretching deep into the West Bank (like the Ariel and Kedumim blocs), and inflated settlement 'balloons" that effective block territorial contiguity of the West Bank (like the E-1/Ma'ale Adumim bloc) are not consistent with the achievement of a peace agreement or the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.
Separation Barrier Route Geneva Initiative Route
What are the current trends in settlement blocs in construction and population?
Population trends: Approximately 75% of the settlers live in settlements located west of the barrier (on the Israeli side) and the settler population growth rate is higher in these areas than on the eastern side (in large part due to the presence of large ultra-Orthodox settlements, which boast a very high birth rate).
Construction trends: For some time now, most settlement construction has been taking place in settlements located on the west side of the barrier, and most of this construction has been initiated directly by the government (as opposed to construction that is initiated by private companies). Since the Annapolis summit in November 2007, Israeli Ministry of Housing data indicate that: 20% of the public housing units that were sold by the Ministry of Housing in Israel (that is, in all of Israel plus the West Bank) were in the settlement blocs; another 10% were in Har Homa in East Jerusalem; the same trend prevailed also in the last few years, when approximately one-third of the public housing units sold were beyond the Green Line (2/3 of which are in the blocs, and another 1/3 of which are in East Jerusalem).
New neighborhood/settlement in Giv'at Ze'ev – three months after the Annapolis summit and the Israeli commitment to freeze settlement activity, the Israeli government approved the construction of "Agan Ha'ayalot," a huge new neighborhood for the ultra-Orthodox population, located between Giv'at Ze'ev and Beit Horon settlements, in the Giv'at Ze'ev settlement bloc. The first phase of the plan will include a few hundred housing units with the possibility for further expansion.
Unification of municipalities & creation of a new urban entity in the "Ariel bloc" – the Israeli Minister of Interior recently decided to establish a new municipality in the West Bank, to encompass four settlements in the Ariel bloc, located in a cluster close to the Green Line, on the far western end of the Ariel bloc. The new municipality will be comprised of Elkana and Etz Efraim (religious settlements), and the mixed religious/secular settlements of Oranit (which lies directly along the Green Line) and Sha'arei Tikva, with a total population of more than 13,200 settlers. This ostensibly "technical" and "administrative" decision – which removes the four settlements from their traditional settlement regional authorities or council – will in fact strengthen the settlements individually and as a bloc, likely paving the way for further development and expansion in them. Merging these relatively small settlements into one relatively large municipality will likely impact the way the settlements and their inhabitants are viewed by Israelis and by Israeli authorities, making them, as a group, seem more strongly connected to Israel. It should be noted that the area also includes one Palestinian village, Azun Atma, which is already a fenced and isolated enclave on the Israeli side of the security fence. It is not yet clear what the change in administrative authority in this area will mean to the village