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West Bank settlements become havens of Israeli surburbanites

Growth driven less by ideology than by middle-class economics could strain peace talks.

(Page 5 of 6)

Their move to settlements is a choice being made by thousands more Israelis every year.

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Netanyahu attributes most of the increase to "natural growth" – an increase due to the high birthrates among existing residents.

Since 2001, Israeli government statistics show that natural growth is the largest driver of population increases. But critics suggest that's a cover for a building boom that is encouraging more Israelis to sink roots in land threatened to be lost to the creation of a Palestinian state.

The head of the Yesha settlers council, Daniel Dayan, says the growth of West Bank Israeli population is due to rapid population increase – couples having large families – and not because of a building boom.

"We don't have enough houses to provide for natural growth," he said in a meeting earlier this month with foreign reporters. This lack of housing, he said, amounted to a "quiet expulsion" of young people who have to leave the settlements because they can't find houses there.

ONE OF THE FASTEST-GROWING SETTLEMENTS in the West Bank is Tekoa, which in 2008 grew by 11.6 percent. That's even more rapid growth than in the ultra-Orthodox settlements of Modiin Illit and Beitar Illit.

Tekoa, which appears in the Bible, is southeast of Bethlehem and has natural attractions: It sits atop a hill that provides breathtaking views of the desert mountains and, on a clear day, of Jordan. It also has man-made draws: a public swimming pool and an intentional progressive mix of religious and secular families – Israel's main social divide. Its official Orthodox rabbi has an unconventional habit of meeting with local Islamic figures, including members of Hamas.

Until recently, Tekoa was slightly isolated in the midst of Palestinian villages. Settlers driving to Tekoa had a 40-minute drive from Jerusalem that led them through two villages, where Palestinians would often stone their cars. But a new road, opened last year, gets residents to Jerusalem in 15 minutes.

"Sometimes I find myself going into Jerusalem three times a day," says Shelly Allon, an art therapist who grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and whose well-read American upbringing is evidenced by the copies of The New York Times Book Review lying around the house.

She and her husband, Jeff, an artist, had lived together in Israel for many years before returning to the US to live in Philadelphia for 11 years. They returned to Jerusalem a year ago and discovered that an affordable home there to house them and most of their eight children – the youngest is 7 and the oldest, 22, is a student at the University of Pennsylvania – proved impossible.

So they took the leap, buying a five-bedroom, multistory house for $210,000 – a quarter of the cost of an equivalent apartment in Jerusalem.

Shelly felt surprised that some of her Jerusalem friends were critical of her choice, and that some of her kids' new friends were told there'd be no West Bank play dates. Her sister back in the US teased, "Have fun being a settler."