The end goal of the current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is two separate, sovereign states. Palestinians say that the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, deemed illegal by the United Nations, influence the outcome of such talks. With more than 300,000 Israelis now living in such settlements, Israel expects to keep at least some of them under a final peace deal – possibly as part of a land swap.
An estimated three-quarters of Israeli settlers live on a relatively small percentage of the West Bank, most of them in communities adjacent to Israel proper. Some of them are ideologically driven and some are attracted by the low cost of living; many are motivated by a combination of the two.
Here are the five most populous settlements in the West Bank.
Founded in 1978
Of the five largest settlements in the West Bank, Ariel is located the furthest from the Green Line – more than 9 miles. It lies east of Tel Aviv and north of Jerusalem. Though it remains on the Palestinian side of the separation barrier, it is considered a strategic bulwark protecting Israel's narrow middle. It is home to the Ariel University Center of Samaria, which enrolls 8,500 students, both Jews and Arabs.
4. Gush Etzion bloc
First post-1948 settlement was founded in 1967
Population: 20,532 (excluding Betar Illit)
Gush Etzion is the collective name used for a group of Israeli settlements in the vicinity of the West Bank city of Bethlehem. The Foundation for Middle East Peace counts 15 settlements as part of the bloc, including Betar Illit. The settlements lie on both sides of the separation barrier, but entirely on the Palestinian side of the Green Line.
Jews first attempted to settle the area now part of the Gush Etzion bloc in the 1920s. The first attempt was unsuccessful, and later attempts were destroyed in the 1948 war. Efforts began again in 1967, when Israel took over the West Bank in the Six-Day War.
3. Betar Illit
Founded in 1985
Betar Illit is situated about six miles south of Jerusalem and west of Bethlehem, and is located less than a kilometer within the Palestinian side of the Green Line. It is an Orthodox Jewish community with one of the fastest-growing populations in the West Bank. Because much of the population is engaged in religious study, rather than employed in nearby cities, it is relatively self contained. Betar Illit is often considered part of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc.
2. Maale Adumim
Founded in 1975
Maale Adumim lies east of Jerusalem, about 2.5 miles from the Green Line. Considered by many Israelis to be a suburb of the city because of its close proximity, it began as a planned community and commuter town for Israelis working in Jerusalem. A mix of religious and secular Jews live there.
Israel values the "strategic depth” Maale Adumim offers against an army coming from the east. But Palestinians and their international supporters have criticized Israel’s efforts to incorporate Maale Adumim, as well as an adjacent area known as E-1, because those plans threaten the territorial contiguity of a future Palestinian state. The Maale Adumim bloc extends far into the West Bank, leaving only a narrow corridor of land in the eastern West Bank to connect the northern and southern regions of the territory.
1. Modiin Illit
Founded in 1996*
Modiin Illit sits about halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. With more than 42,000 settlers today, Modiin Illit alone has about four times the number of settlers that were in the entire Gaza Strip before the 2005 disengagement. Most of its residents are Orthodox Jews.
Modiin Illit is encompassed by the Israeli separation barrier – designed to protect Israeli citizens from Palestinian militant attacks – even though it lies outside the pre-1967 Israeli border known as the Green Line. Just on the other side of the wall from Modiin Illit is Bilin, where Palestinians have held weekly protests against the wall for several years.