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.
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With rapid population growth, high demand for housingSkip to next paragraph
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Beitar Illit is about a 20-minute drive southwest of Jerusalem. The settlement looks out onto hilltops dotted by red-roofed houses that are part of the "Etzion bloc," a group of suburban settlements which left-wing Israeli governments have sought to annex in a land swap with Palestinians in previous negotiations.
The annual population growth in Beitar is nearly twice the overall rate of about 5 percent for the West Bank settlements. Mr. Rubenstein complained that Beitar Illit is planned to include 10,000 housing units, but there are permits for only 7,000 – the remainder are on hold until further notice.
Despite complaints among residents of Beitar Illit and other areas that the government isn't giving enough building permits, data published in March by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics on housing starts in the West Bank showed a 42 percent increase in 2008 compared with 2007.
Peace groups complain that the population in the settlements increased about 50 percent in the last decade. Regarding the dilemma faced by the ultra-religious settlements, peace groups say that the government should encourage them to live inside Israel proper.
"Israel is constructing in a way that they limit the ability of Palestinians to use their own land," says Dror Etkes, a settlement expert at the human rights watchdog Yesh Din. "I grew up in Jerusalem and I cannot afford to live there even if I wanted. Who in the country has a guarantee they'll be able to live five minutes from their home? Only the settlers are asking for this."
Religious groups take refuge from modernity in settlements
Because strictly religious Jewish groups seek to block out trappings of modernity, they prefer to live in closed communities where advertising is tailored to their sensibilities and cable or satellite TV infrastructure is banned. Combined with the fact that Beitar Illit and Modiin Illit have the highest reproductive rate in the country of about eight children per woman, that has created surging demand for residential units.
Despite the slump in real estate prices around the world, values in Beitar Illit are climbing. Fraida Sterka, a local broker, said that prices have gone up 5 percent in the last two months.
"People want to live in a place that's very observant without any outside influences," says Ms. Sterka. "There's an entire community that wants to live here. There is a shortage of several thousand housing units a year."
To make do, owners are outfitting basements as apartments and closing in balconies for extra room. Because of a lack of commercial real estate in Beitar, shops have opened up in apartment buildings.
And so, in a couple of days, the Zehnwirths will move into a converted basement with one tiny window that opens into an air shaft and a second that looks out to a stairway landing.
"It's like living in a bomb shelter," says Mr. Zehnwirth. "The government promised us apartments here. They said, come and it will free up. Meanwhile, its only gotten worse."