In two Israeli settlements, a booming demand for more space
With women having an average of eight children each, the ultra-Orthodox communities of Beiter Illit and Modiin Illit are case studies in why the settlement issue is not getting any easier.
Beitar Illit, West Bank
A stack of moving boxes packed with religious books is tucked into the corner of Yossi and Racheli Zehnwirth's apartment salon.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Three years ago, the couple arrived as newlyweds in this devoutly religious settlement – the second largest in the West Bank – with the hopes of buying their own home, a goal beyond reach 15 minutes away in Jerusalem.
Now, with two young boys, the family is moving to a rental half the size of their current apartment because they can't keep up with property values buoyed by high birthrates among ultra-Orthodox Jews and the demand from newcomers escaping overcrowded cities.
"Here we ride in bullet-proof buses for the price," says Mr. Zehnwirth. "Now we don't even have the [low] price any more."
As the Obama administration pushes for a total West Bank settlement freeze and Israel insists on allowing continued expansion inside existing settlements, Beitar and a second ultra-religious city, Modiin Illit, illustrate the roots of the dispute over Israeli development on land claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.
Planned by the Israeli government as a housing solution for religious sects with high birthrates and a preference for living in cloistered neighborhoods, building in the two settlements took off after the Oslo peace process began in 1993. Runaway growth has made the two cities account for one-fourth of the 300,000 Israelis spread over more than 100 settlements in the West Bank, not including Israeli neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.
But because these settlements are located relatively close to Israel proper, an agreement on a border modification and land swap is a realistic option for resolving the dispute here. Even though they have moved into the vortex of a decades-old geopolitical dispute, the residents of these communities are not nationalists like those at the forefront Jewish settler movement who seek territorial expansion.
"We didn't come here for politics or to fight. We want to live in the land of Israel, but it doesn't matter where – east or west," says Beitar Illit Mayor Meir Rubenstein. "To our great misfortune, the government put us here and now we're stuck with Obama."
Israel continues settlement expansion
The dispute over settlements has opened up the most public dispute between Israel and the US in about two decades. On Monday, Israel announced it had approved 50 new housing units in a settlement north of Jerusalem to accommodate settlers being moved from an outpost without government approval. In a policy speech earlier this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that although Israel won't build new settlements, it will permit construction to allow existing communities to expand normally.
Last week, the G-8 and the Quartet of Peace process sponsors joined the call for a complete settlement freeze.