This may seem to be a simple question, but efforts to answer it show that it is actually complex. For one thing, what’s a “settlement?” What are the “major blocks?” How many Israelis live in the major blocks and how many in smaller settlements beyond the security fence? Are those settlements growing?
I tried to answer those questions in an article entitled “The Unsettled Question,” published today in Foreign Policy. Oddly enough, both the settler movement and the Palestinian Authority have often exaggerated the numbers–for different and indeed opposite reasons. The article is an effort to find the facts upon which policy arguments should be based.
The bottom line: settlements beyond the security fence are indeed growing in population, and considerably faster than Israel’s population. In the years I examined (with Uri Sadot, the co-author), Israel’s population grew about 6 percent but these settlements grew about 17 percent, if the data we used–based on electoral rolls–is accurate. Roughly 80,000 Israelis appear to live now in settlements in the West Bank that are not typically viewed as areas Israel would keep under the terms of the most likely final status agreements. Whether it is in Israel’s interest for that number to grow is, of course, a hotly debated policy matter. As we state in the article, “If the guiding Israeli principle remains a two-state solution, partition of the West Bank, and separation from the Palestinians, it is especially hard to see the logic in allowing further blending of the populations.”
But whatever one’s policy views, information is useful. As Uri and I end the article, “It is hard to come up with hard numbers, and we acknowledge the limitations to our methodology. But the very fact that facts are hard to come by is significant: Transparency won’t end the debate on settlement expansion, but it would make that debate better informed and far more intelligent.”