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West Bank settlements’ house prices go through the roof




It made little difference to him that those houses were in Israeli West Bank settlements. A religious Zionist, he has no problem living in the territory that the international community views as occupied.

So when he and his wife went house hunting in Jerusalem 19 years ago and couldn’t find anything in their price range, they ventured north to this settlement. Ever since, they have lived there in the two-storey house of Lipkin’s dreams.

A generation later, Lipkin is facing the same problem. His kids want to move back to Ofra – but now it, too, is unaffordable. Lipkin bought his house in 2000 for 550 000 shekels – about $200 000 (R2.8 million) in 2018 dollars, correcting for inflation. Now, houses the same size in Ofra sell for at least 1.5 million shekels, (R5.9 million).

In fewer than 20 years, in other words, the price of housing in the settlement has doubled.

“We’re not sorry for a second when we think about the price of the house, the ease of buying it,” Lipkin, the spokesperson for Ofra and a tour guide, told JTA while sitting in an chair in the corner of his spacious living room. “Today we’re shaking from fear. We have five kids and we have no idea how our kids will buy their own house without becoming enslaved to a crazy mortgage.”

Since the Lipkins moved across Israel’s pre-1967 borders, or the Green Line, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have followed their lead. In 2000, there were fewer than 200 000 settlers living in the West Bank, excluding eastern Jerusalem, according to B’Tselem, a left-wing Israeli organisation. Now, the number is closer to 400 000. And home prices are rising accordingly.

Many of the settlers are ideological – committed to the principle of Jews living in what they call Judea and Samaria and Israel retaining control of the area. But others are drawn by the quality of life offered by settlements – larger houses, more green space, and intimate communities.

The Israeli government has also facilitated that comfort, building access roads that avoid Palestinian areas and increasing the number of bus lines that go directly to the settlements. The changes mean that many settlers can live their lives, if they choose, largely avoiding contact with the Palestinian villages around them. Even relatively distant settlements like Ofra have the feel of a suburb.

But, the settlements are now becoming more like Israel in yet another way: The country’s festering housing crisis, in which home prices have ballooned for a decade, is moving across the Green Line. The safer settlements feel, the more their home prices rise to meet the national average.

According to a November 2016 paper by the Shoresh Institute, a research group in Israel, housing construction in the settlements has not kept up with population growth. An October 2016 paper by Israel’s Center for Political Economics found that the number of average monthly salaries needed to buy a home in the settlements rose from 87 in 2003 to 152 in 2015. That’s only 10 pay cheques less than the national average of 162.

The housing market is also booming in Efrat, a settlement that acts as a bedroom community for nearby Jerusalem. Right-wing politicians like Naftali Bennett, the Minister of Education, have pushed annexation of so-called consensus settlements like Efrat – those that most Israelis assume will remain part of the country under any future scenario – for years.

As he walked through an empty corner townhouse for sale in Efrat, real estate agent Yaniv Gabbay said that as the prospect of a Palestinian state – and corresponding settlement evacuation – becomes more and more distant, Israelis feel increasingly comfortable investing in West Bank property. Another townhouse in this development sold for 2 million shekels (R7.8 million), in 2016, before it was built. This five-bedroom unit on the corner was going for 2.6 million shekels (R10.1 million)as of May.

In an Instagram Q-and-A on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “I can promise you that no settlements in the Land of Israel will be evacuated.”

Israel’s right-wing is also increasing the country’s settlement building. According to Peace Now, a left-wing Israeli nongovernmental organisation that monitors settlement activity, the amount of new construction in the settlements was 17% above the annual average in 2017.

On Wednesday, Israel announced the advancement of construction plans for 1 000 more housing units in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, Palestinians living in Area C, the area of the West Bank fully administered by Israel, have long protested that they can’t build any houses or infrastructure.

“Area C has been allocated for the benefit of Israeli settlements or the Israeli military, at the expense of Palestinian communities,” according to the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “This impedes the development of adequate housing, infrastructure, and livelihoods in Palestinian communities, and has significant consequences for the entire West Bank population.”

Hagit Ofran, who heads Peace Now’s Settlement Watch project, said the main problem facing any potential settlement evacuation is the sheer number of residents who live in isolated settlements. She is less worried about Israelis who move to the West Bank for quality-of-life reasons than the tens of thousands of ideological settlers who are committed to living deep in the West Bank.

A few settlers in the northern West Bank said quality of life was the driving factor in bringing them to the territory. When Miriam Shatsky and her husband were looking to buy a home recently, a mortgage agent laughed at them after they revealed their salaries and said they wanted to live in the central Israeli city of Modiin. A few months ago, they were able to buy a five-bedroom apartment for slightly more than $300 000 (R4.2 million) in Karnei Shomron, a settlement with a large English-speaking, or Anglo, population.

“Real estate in the territories was really risky, and we didn’t know we wanted to settle here,” Shatsky said. “As we got better jobs, the target kept moving farther and farther away. Actually, Modiin sounded very interesting to me, but it was knocked off the table because it wasn’t affordable. A lot of Anglo communities are in places that aren’t affordable.”

Lipkin said that after living in the settlements for a while, the differences between quality-of-life concerns and ideology blur. With right-wing politicians frequently calling for some form of settlement annexation, Israel is doing more to absorb the settlements than to leave them. And in the meantime, more Israelis keep moving in.


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