Ultra-Orthodox population grows in Israeli settlements

Beitar Illit (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) –


In the streets of the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit, most men wear the traditional black suits of the ultra-Orthodox, a familiar sight in the strictly religious Jewish neighbourhoods of nearby Jerusalem.

The ultra-Orthodox make up a growing percentage of Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, a sign of the rapidly expanding population of strictly religious Jews as Israel approaches the 70th anniversary of its founding on May 14.

With more than 56,000 residents, Beitar Illit is one of the most populated settlements in the West Bank, the Palestinian territory under Israeli occupation for more than half a century.

Most residents are ultra-Orthodox and strictly observe Jewish law in all aspects of daily life.

Men dress in black suits while women wear long dresses and cover their heads. There are no movie theatres, and traffic comes to a halt for 24 hours from Friday evening to mark Shabbat, the weekly day of rest.

During the week, young children are easy to spot, reflecting ultra-Orthodox preferences for large families.

Beitar Illit, established in the 1980s on the land of a former Palestinian village, is different from most settlements in the West Bank, which tend to be more secular and politically right-wing.

Along with Modiin Illit, another West Bank settlement with 70,000 mainly ultra-Orthodox residents, it illustrates a key demographic change taking place in Israel and its settlements.

While the ultra-Orthodox make up around 10 percent of the population among all Israelis, they now count for a third of those in the West Bank, which many Israelis refer to by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria.

"Despite our geographic situation, the population of Beitar Illit keeps going up," the municipality's website says.

- 'Housing crisis' -

It adds that there are around 40 births per week, or around 2,000 yearly, well over the Israeli average.

At that rate, Jerusalem risks becoming a suburb of Beitar Illit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joked during a visit in 2017.

But 50 years after the planting of the first Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the ultra-Orthodox are not choosing to live in Beitar Illit for ideological reasons, unlike many other settlers.

"The reason why people live here is the housing crisis," said city hall spokesman Moshe Glasner.

"An ultra-Orthodox family would not live here as a first choice if they could live elsewhere."

Economic considerations are accompanied by community and religious concerns.

Binyamin Kluger, 45, a community worker who has lived in Beitar Illit for seven years, said he wanted to "live in the midst of the Torah."

"It is the ideal area to live as a religious Jew," he said.

Israeli settlements are viewed as illegal under international law and a major obstacle to peace as they are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state. Israel's government disputes that.

More than 600,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem in near constant conflict with some three million Palestinians there.

- 'Motivations are different' -

Beitar Illit's residents say they have a peaceful relationship with the Palestinians surrounding them -- though the Palestinians see all settlements as theft of their land.

Israeli cars in the area surrounding the settlement are sometimes targeted by Palestinians throwing stones.

Residents point out that some 1,500 Palestinians work daily in the settlement without incident, though Palestinians have few other options for solid employment in the economically struggling West Bank.

"All you have to do is come here to see how we work together to understand that it is different from the usual image of settlements," said Yoram Cohen, who works in a grocery store and has lived in Beitar Illit for 18 years.

Nadav Shragai of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs said the increase in the West Bank's ultra-Orthodox population would be welcomed by those in favour of settlement building.

"When the ideologues founded communities in the territories, they hoped that the population that came to live there would represent all segments of society, and that is what is happening," he said.

Due to its location, Beitar Illit may be among the settlements that would remain in place in a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Hagit Ofran of the Peace Now settlement watchdog said the ultra-Orthodox are among the least likely to oppose a peace deal with the Palestinians.

"Their motivations are different and there is a strong possibility that in the event of a peace deal, they would remain in place," she said.

"As a result, they are not concerned with territorial matters, unlike the more ideological settlers."