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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.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 21, 2009

Palestinian workers (right) complete Shlomit and Boaz Cohen’s home in Tekoa.

Yasmine Soiffer / Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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Kiryat Netafim and Tekoa, West Bank

Meet the Ovadiahs, the Allons, and the Cohens. They're new arrivals in Israeli neighborhoods where freshly laid red-tile roofs and toddler toys dotting green lawns are a picture of the Israeli equivalent of the American dream, minus the white picket fence.

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But the sounds wafting through the air – the constant clank of construction, and the Muslim call to prayer from nearby Palestinian villages – speak to the larger context in which their new homes are located. All three families have recently bought homes in West Bank settlements, where the rate of population growth – three times that of Israel alone – is the subject of great global dispute.

For the past decade, an annual average of more than 10,000 newcomers have settled in this disputed territory – a portion of that growth was babies born to growing families. In the years 2006 through 2008, a yearly average of 14,100 new residents of West Bank settlements were registered by Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics – the biggest growth spurt, in sheer numbers, in recent Israeli history.

That growth has vastly different meaning locally, nationally, and globally.

To Palestinians, it means an expansion of the occupation.

In the Israeli narrative – in which the world's censure of settlement growth seems to have been reduced to background noise for families like the Ovadiahs, Allons, and Cohens – the growth is beginning to look like little more than suburbanization. They came in search of quiet bedroom communities that boast ample space, pretty landscapes – and some of the best home values in Israel.

Through the lens of the international community, West Bank growth impedes renewed efforts to bring about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Bridging that disconnect is a major challenge for President Obama, who is expected this week to try to restart Middle East peace talks at the UN General Assembly, where he's scheduled to meet with Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

This is the latest chapter in the on again, off again drama that has played out between Jerusalem and Washington for decades: Every US president since Lyndon Johnson has urged Israel not to build or expand settlements in the territories it occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict. But with more than 300,000 Israeli settlers living in some 120 settlements – and Mr. Netanyahu exempting nearly 3,000 housing units from a six-month freeze – the settlement issue has only become more formidable. (Read a full briefing page on Israeli settlements here.)

BUT WHO ARE THE PEOPLE WHO WOULD CHOOSE to settle in the midst of such unsettled conflict?