Of the thousands of clauses in the Israeli state’s annual budget, allocations to settlements in the territories remain the most concealed — a kind of state secret. While allocations to education, welfare and security are (to a certain degree) public information, no one in Israel has been able to decipher the secret of settlement allocations.
So how much money is distributed to the settlements every year? Who holds the purse strings? And is the money transferred to the settlements over or under the table?
Conventional wisdom holds that we are talking about billions. Full disclosure of the amount is liable to enrage the world, since the international community regards the settlements as illegal entities built on conquered land. Not only is the world likely to protest, but the Israeli public would, too, if they knew the true amount transferred to the settlers, and at whose expense.
We have to be honest and admit that settlement allocations reflect the state's priorities.
On Sept. 8, the Adva Center published a special report that dares to reveal one facet of the deep, dark secret: the inequality in governmental funding for municipal budgets from 1991-2012. The report is a true reflection of a different Israel, the Israel after the Six Day War.
The report's authors, Shlomo Swirski and Etty Konor-Attias, emphasize that in the last 20 years, the number of settlers in the territories soared by 240%, in contrast to a 60% increase in the overall Israeli population. The three ultra-Orthodox settlements of Immanuel, Beitar Illit and Modi’in Illit experienced the biggest increase in settler populations, with residents there increasing by 376%.
Even more critical is the inequality between the budget allocations for settlements and funding for towns in the periphery. The government goes out of its way to trumpet its commitment to strengthening the towns in the periphery, in the country’s north and the south, with the goal of narrowing inequality between them and the center of the country. Yet, the Adva Center report paints a depressing picture of broken promises.
According to the report, in 2012 the highest per capita government spending was in the settlements in the territories, at 2,695 Israeli shekels (about $745) per settler. In the development towns, by contrast, the per capita outlay was only 1,892 shekels (about $523). In fact, it emerged that per capita government spending decreased over the years only in the development towns.
Swirski told the Israeli financial newspaper TheMarker that until 1997, the development towns had been Israel’s greatest settlement enterprise, but “[t]oday it holds an inferior position by all parameters, in contrast to the ideological settlements. That is part of the reason that the settlements (except for the ultra-Orthodox ones) are on a middle-high socio-economic status, while the development towns are middle-low status.”
The Israeli public did not lose its collective cool at the report’s findings, which were buried in the back pages of newspapers like old news. But visitors to the Etzion settlement bloc or the northern Jerusalem area on the way to Ramallah will marvel over the magnitude of construction in the settlements. Heavy machinery operates around the clock. While the populations of development towns in Israel’s south have not increased over the last two decades, most settlements have seen their populations multiply several times over. Ofra and Beit El, near Ramallah, have become real towns, each boasting thousands of inhabitants. From almost every window, one can look out on the neighboring Palestinians. The distance between Ramallah and its surrounding settlements has gone from hundreds of meters to mere dozens.
Giving preferential treatment to the settlements is nothing new. Israel adopted this approach after the 1967 Six Day War, and it has reflected the priorities of successive Israeli governments. These governments operated under the same ideological perspective: The settlement enterprise is a huge strategic asset for Israel. A special report by the state comptroller in 2000 on the southern periphery was an incisive indictment of Israel's governments regarding their treatment of the towns in the periphery.
The Peace Now movement, which keeps close track of settlement expansion, posted the following on its Facebook page: “It is important to remember that the settlers represent only 4% of Israeli citizens. Yet the budgetary allocations and national priority they receive come at the expense of the education, housing, welfare and infrastructure allocations of the rest of Israeli citizens — the other 96%.”
The Yesha Council, a settlement umbrella organization, attacked the Adva Center findings. The group, which includes settler leaders, argued that the report pits one population against another. The council's deputy director, Yigal Dilmoni, told Channel 7 radio on Sept. 9, “The Adva Center targeted first the Judea and Samaria settlement enterprise, and only afterward manipulated data in every possible way to portray the settles as the blackmailing Jew. The report is distorted and falsified.”
This debate has accompanied Israeli politics ever since Israel captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip after the Six Day War. “In 1967, Israeli society turned its back on [Israel's first Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion’s legacy, according to which we must never settle in the heart of densely populated Palestinian centers,” said professor Shlomo Ben-Ami, who served as foreign minister in former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s government. “Unfortunately, we have betrayed Zionism’s two central values. We went to the very heart of the Arab population, and we also abandoned the Negev.”