Ultra-Orthodox Jews Moving to West Bank

Ultra-Orthadox Jews are moving to settlements in the West Bank, and most are moving for financial reasons — not political. Currently, this group is nearly one-third of the settler population there, and with families having at least six children a piece, those populations will continue to grow.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. Israeli and Palestinian leaders today met in Jerusalem for talks that were described by one official as very frank and very difficult, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to continue talking on a regular basis. Israel is refusing to accept a new coalition Palestinian government unless Hamas recognizes Israel.

One other sticking point in relations is Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The Jewish population there grew by more than five percent last year. Despite an Israeli promise not to expand Jewish settlements, construction in many settlements is continuing. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports from the West Bank.

(Soundbite of construction)

LINDA GRADSTEIN: Most Jewish settlements in the West Bank consist of red-roofed individual family homes and look like an American suburb, but here in Modi'in Illit, large ultra-Orthodox families live in apartment buildings. The streets are filled with men in black hats and coats, young mothers pushing baby carriages, and girls wearing long skirts.

Outside the supermarket, Osnat Fema(ph), a mother of six, says this settlement doesn't feel any different than an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood inside Israel, which is less than three miles away. She says the only difference is that housing prices are significantly cheaper.

Ms. OSNAT FEMA (West Bank Resident): (Through translator) It's a city of Torah and a good place to raise our children in a religious environment. Also, buying apartments here is cheaper, and that's important. Families have a lot of children, and most of the men don't work but study Torah all day, so the money is important.

GRADSTEIN: Modi'in Illit, with 35,000 residents, has become the largest settlement in the West Bank. Another ultra-Orthodox settlement near Bethlehem is also growing fast. The dovish Peace Now group says the settler population in the West Bank has increased by more than five percent, to almost 270,000 Israelis, not including East Jerusalem. The settler population is also changing.

The fervently Zionist, politically motivated settlers are being replaced with ultra-Orthodox Jews who are moving to the settlements for economic rather than political reasons. Today they are almost one-third of the total settler population, and with high birth rates of at least six children per family, that percentage will continue to grow.

Ultra-Orthodox means they adhere strictly to Jewish law and favor religious education over secular education. Many of the men also do not serve in the Israeli army because they feel that Torah study is more important.

Drora Edkus(ph), who tracks settlements for Peace Now, says that most of the new construction is in settlements that are relatively close to the Israeli border on the western side of the barrier that Israel is building in and around the West Bank.

Mr. DRORA EDKUS (Peace Now): Once the barrier is constructed, so people tend to see it as future a promise that (unintelligible) will remain also in Israel, and therefore it's accelerated this process.

GRADSTEIN: Bethlehem's Palestinian mayor, Hana Nasir, says settlements around Bethlehem and the barrier are strangling the city. He says the ongoing settlement expansion threatens any future peace deal with Israel.

Mayor HANA NASIR (Bethlehem): The settlements now, they are dozens, and they are cutting the West Bank into bits and pieces, and there is no more any chance for a viable Palestinian state would be created in the future.

GRADSTEIN: Settler spokesman Yusrael Maidad(ph) says settlers believe that all of the West Bank should remain under Jewish control.

Mr. YUSRAEL MAIDAD (Settler Spokesman): We see the historical pattern of increasing the Jewish population there, of ensuring Israel's security by doing so, by trying to make sure that our second and third generation continue to live there, by drawing in additional sectors of Israel's population, and actually making that piece of territory as much of Israel as physically possible.

GRADSTEIN: That contradicts the U.S.-backed roadmap to peace, which Israel and the Palestinians accepted four years ago. The roadmap calls on Israel to end settlement expansion and on Palestinians to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. Israeli officials interpret that to mean that natural growth or building houses for children who've grown up in the settlement is allowed. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev says Israel has not violated its commitments.

Mr. MARK REGEV (Spokesman, Israeli Foreign Ministry): One, we are not building new settlements. Two, we're not taking over Arab-controlled land for the purpose of constructing, for building new settlements or for expanding existing ones. Three, we're not outwardly expanding existing settlements. They're the three principles.

GRADSTEIN: Peace Now charges that in several cases Arab land has been confiscated. It also says that Israel is continuing to build in unauthorized settlement outposts and expand existing settlements.

When Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was elected a year ago, he promised a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from a large part of the West Bank. That would follow Israel's first pullback from settlements, the withdrawal from Gaza a year and a half ago.

Since then, Israel has dismantled one unauthorized settlement outpost in the West Bank, a move that sparked a violent clash between police and protestors and left dozens on both sides wounded. Olmert's promise to dismantle dozens of other outposts has not been fulfilled.

Uri Dromi at the Israel Democracy Institute says with the election of the Islamist Hamas to run the Palestinian government, Israeli plans of a West Bank pullout have become more complicated. He says Israel is also facing more urgent issues.

Mr. URI DROMI (Israel Democracy Institute): The public agenda in Israel, the public discourse, is so saturated with burning issues - corruption, stability of the government, the Iranian threat, Hezbollah, Hamas - people are too overwhelmed with these problems to worry about the long-range demographic or settlement issue.

GRADSTEIN: But, says Dromi, in any future peace deal with the Palestinians Israel will eventually have to dismantle many of the settlements, and building new homes there every year will only make that process more difficult. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Modi'in Illit on the West Bank.

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