Givat Ha’eytam, a lonely hill in the Israeli occupied West Bank, seems like anything but a natural part of the bustling 8,000-person Jewish settlement of Efrat. Indeed, the stony outcrop, with its view of Efrat’s buildings in the distance, soon will be cut off from that settlement by the separation barrier Israel is building across the length of the West Bank, ostensibly to protect Israelis from Palestinian terrorism.
Nevertheless, the Israeli policy that is being widely described as “natural growth” could permit developing Givat Ha’eytam as an extension of Efrat.
In his June 14 address at Bar-Ilan University, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that while he wants to see some growth in the territories, he has “no intention of building new settlements or of expropriating additional land for existing settlements.”
But that policy is not as clear as it seems. Removed though it is from Efrat, building on Givat Ha’eytam would be regarded by Israel as simply expanding Efrat — a city slated to be on the “Israeli” side of the separation barrier — rather than creating a new settlement. By prior planning, Givat Ha’eytam falls within Efrat’s municipal boundaries.
Last February, Israel declared the expanse of land on which Givat Ha’eytam sits to be “state land” after rejecting Palestinian ownership claims to it as unsubstantiated. Only a small section, whose ownership by Palestinians Israel acknowledged, was exempt. Mayor Oded Revivi told the Forward that applications to develop the area as part of Efrat are currently “waiting on the desks” of Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
This hill epitomizes the ambiguity of Netanyahu’s stance on settlements that has even America’s peace envoy, George Mitchell, confused. When it comes to natural growth “there are almost as many definitions as there are people speaking,” Mitchell said at a press briefing June 16.
Netanyahu’s office refuses to clarify whether natural growth, as Israel understands the term, would involve expanding settlements beyond the perimeters of their already built-up environments — thereby substantially changing the reality on the ground, with Jewish settlements covering a much wider area — or whether natural growth just involves construction within the perimeters of already built-up areas.
His advisers will go no further than saying that the oral agreements Israel claims it reached with President Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush —agreements that were denied in Washington — point to a dual approach. In the large settlement blocs, widely defined as the Gush Etzion bloc including Efrat, Modi’in Illit, Betar Illit, Ma’ale Adumim and sometimes Ariel, expansion could be anywhere within broadly drawn municipal boundaries, including areas far outside already built-up core sectors. But in less central settlements, new housing to accommodate “natural growth” would be restricted to those areas where construction already exists, according to Jerusalem’s understanding of the disputed agreements.
More broadly, Netanyahu’s office is surprised that Mitchell is so interested in working out the meaning of “natural growth” — because, at least publicly, the phrase has not passed Netanyahu’s own lips during his time in office. The Israeli leader has carefully avoided it, choosing instead to promise that he will facilitate “normal life” in the settlements.
Past governments have talked about “natural growth” — an expression that came into use in the 1990s. It became more widely known as a result of the 2001 Mitchell Report, which said that Israel “should freeze all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements.” The Road Map for Peace in the Middle East, a 2002 international agreement, incorporated this demand.
But Netanyahu favors the more vague “normal life” phrasing. “It seems that the more flexible and the less rigid the term used, the better it is for Netanyahu,” said Ben-Gurion University geographer David Newman, who sits on a number of government committees on negotiations about final borders. “Semantics are very important here.”
“The overarching policy goal of today,” a government advisor told the Forward, speaking on condition of anonymity, “is that we are trying to reach common ground with the Americans on settlements. We don’t want an argument; we want to reach understandings.”
Last year, Israel built 2,122 living units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. If, as the government hopes, it reaches an understanding with Washington that does not require a full settlement freeze, the key questions will be where new construction is to take place and at what rate, whether under the guise of “natural growth” or “normal life.”
Efrat is not alone among the 120 West Bank settlements in having jurisdiction over land well beyond its built-up sector. Among the most generously endowed settlements is Kibbutz Mitzpe Shalem, close to the Dead Sea. The settlement, with a population of just 200, offers housing to nonmembers of the kibbutz and has outlying jurisdiction of some 13.6 square miles — a spread of land equal to that of the central Israeli city of Petah Tikvah which has a population of 189,000.
As for what the rate of “natural growth” building would be and how it would be calculated, Netanyahu’s office is saying nothing. “The most common definition is by the number of births,” Mitchell said at the June 16 press conference.
Population growth from births in the West Bank is high. In 2007, the latest year for which there are official statistics, there were 9,602 babies born to settlers while only 437 settlers died, meaning a net growth of 9,165 in the established settler population. It is unclear, however, how this should translate into construction — or when, since the infants will not need homes of their own for a couple of decades.
Still, one objective of the policy appears to be to allow families, as they grow, to move to larger homes.
But, by admission of Aliza Herbst, spokeswoman for the settler representative body the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria, a large proportion of homes in the settlements are built with room to extend, meaning that many growing settler families simply extend their existing home rather than move to a new one.
The more widely invoked rationale for natural growth is that settler children should be able to grow up and live close to their parents. But establishing a building rate based on this is also difficult. Around 1,400 residents of West Bank settlements register to marry in an average year. Even if it were assumed that all of these people wished to live in the West Bank, it is unclear how many new housing units this would require, given that not all West Bank residents who register to marry wish to live in the territories.
Trying to predict what the pattern will be in the future in order to determine a housing policy creates a chicken-and-egg scenario: The number of West Bank newlyweds who want to set up home in the territories will depend, in part, on how plentiful — and as a result, how cheap — housing there is.
But more plentiful and cheaper housing would likely only intensify another trend: Jews from within the Green Line rushing in to take advantage of the bargain prices.
“It’s a free economy,” Revivi said. “The people who would get them are the people who would be paying the highest price.”
Dror Etkes, fieldworker for the anti-settlement organization Yesh Din, predicted: “In the bigger settlements, we would probably see further migration from Israel.”
This is virtually certain, because migrants to the West Bank from within Israel’s pre-1967 borders are generally older and more affluent than the average newlywed. Often, they already own a home in Israel, but are attracted by lower West Bank settlement housing prices, which the government subsidizes heavily. Selling their homes in Israel gives them additional capital, often enabling them to outbid “native” West Bankers. In 2007, this sector accounted for 36.5% of population growth in the West Bank.
Thus, new homes built on the premise of Netanyahu’s “normal life” — to, in his words, “allow mothers and fathers to raise their children like families elsewhere” — are unlikely to come close to achieving this end.
What they will do, indisputably, is increase the spread of Israeli settlements, whoever inhabits them in the end.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at email@example.com