Sivan Hirsch-Hoefler, Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya and Lihi Ben Shitrit, University of Georgia
On January 28, 2020, the Trump administration released its “Peace to Prosperity” plan that outlined its vision for a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The most significant feature of the plan was a proposed Israeli annexation of all Jewish settlements in the West Bank as well as Israeli control over settlement enclaves within the remaining territory allocated to a future Palestinian state. This reflected the administration’s position, articulated in November 2019 by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, that the US administration no longer considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be in violation of international law.
Pompeo’s explanation that settlements were not an obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians reversed the US official position on the settlements dating back to at least 1978 and was first met with celebration by the Israeli right and condemnation by Palestinians. However, all serious accounts of possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict see the settlements to be a critical obstacle. Those who argue that the two-state solution is all but dead cite the numbers of settlements and settlers in the West Bank as decisive “facts on the ground” that now make any viable future Palestinian state impossible. Those who have not lost hope for the two-state paradigm explain how border alterations, limited settlement removal, and land swaps could still create a contiguous Palestinian state. Even the Trump plan acknowledged that the most decisive factor in its radical redrawing of borders was the location of Jewish settlements.
Yet for scholars and policymakers who seek to evaluate the reality of the settlements on the ground, their evolution over time, as well as proposed solutions to the conflict, it is surprisingly elusive to find precise data on the number of settlements, the number of settlers, and the difference between Israeli communities and cities within Israel proper and in the West Bank. This is clearly reflected in the vague “conceptual map” included in Trump’s Peace to Prosperity plan that is so roughly sketched as to remain extremely unclear about the actual number and location of all the settlements it proposes to incorporate into the Israeli state and as part of Israeli enclaves in future Palestinian territory. As prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that he would move toward annexation in July 2020, ensuing arguments over new maps and counter-maps – both secret and public ones – by various settler representatives, the Israeli government, and the US administration further demonstrated the contentious nature of even the most basic details about the settlements. Why is it so difficult to ascertain the precise number of Jewish settlements in the West Bank? In this paper, we review the evolution in terminology and practices of the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) reports on Israeli population and localities in the West Bank from 1967 to the present, which reveal a steady trend toward what might be termed the “normalization of settlements” through increasingly incorporating data on settlements into the data on the Israeli population within Israel proper (within the Green Line). While the integration of settlers and settlements into the statistical yearbooks of Israel may imply that precise data may be more easily available, this is not the case. In our various research projects on the settlements, finding accurate and consistent data has been a constant challenge. Here, we outline some of these challenges and reflect on their causes and their effects. In particular, we compare the CBS reports on Israeli population and localities historically and in the present with data from human rights organizations independently monitoring settlements growth. Collecting precise data is a difficult task first and foremost because of the evolving and inconsistent terminology, definitions, aggregations, and categorizations used by the CBS and by independent monitoring organizations. These inconsistencies show that despite the CBS integration and normalization of settlements and settlers in Israel’s annual statistical data, they remain a much murkier data terrain in comparison to localities and populations within the Green Line. This has implications not only for researchers but also for policymakers and political leaders who are tasked with negotiating and drafting the future borders of Israel and Palestine. Where should the borders pass? how many settlements will be annexed or removed and what is the actual population of these different localities? For both those on the right who seek annexation of all settlements and those on the left who seek dismantling of all or at least some settlements, having precise data on the basic question of how many settlements there are is indispensable and yet almost impossible to obtain.
The CBS Statistical Yearbook: Changing terminology, shifting categories of inclusion
Over the years, we see a shifting and somewhat confusing evolution of the CBS’s handling of the West Bank in its yearbooks, and the place in which settlers and settlements fit within these. What is the status of these territories? Are they a part of Israel or an appendage? Are Israelis living there a part of the population of Israel or of the West Bank? Should settlements be counted as localities in Israel or not? Initially, following the Six Day War the CBS yearbook of 1967 (which provides data for 1966) includes a “supplement” titled “census of population 1967 in the West Bank of the Jordan, Gaza Strip and North Sinai, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem” (stress added).” The supplement is based on the results of a census of the local population conducted in 1967 by the CBS at the request of the Israeli military administration.
But already in the following year, the 1968 yearbook (data for 1967) significant changes occur. In this publication, the population of East Jerusalem, which was previously included in a “supplement” together with the other areas occupied in 1967, is now counted in the general population count for Israel proper. The remaining territories are now called “The Administrated Territories” in an appendix by that title. In the subtitle to the appendix, the West Bank is referred to as Judea and Samaria, as opposed to the name “the West Bank of the Jordan” of the previous yearbook. Next, in the 1969 yearbook (data for 1968) the data on the “administrated territories” is upgraded and integrated from an appendix to a proper chapter of the yearbook. However, its Palestinian population is not included in the count of the Israeli population. The only occupied population that is included in the Israeli population total is that of East Jerusalem.
While the CBS never names them as such, settlers (but not settlements) make their first appearance in the 1970 yearbook. However, they are not counted as part of the population in the chapters on the “administrated territories” but are rather included in the population count of the state of Israel. We are not informed how they are distributed by area. While the rest of the population is divided by districts and sub-districts (for example, center district, Tel Aviv district, south districts, etc.), there is no information on the Israeli population division between the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights and Sinai. The population table simply includes a footnote that states that figures “include Israeli residents in the Administrated Territories” (see figure 1)
Two seemingly subtle developments appear in the 1977 yearbook (data for 1976). First, the settler population – or as the yearbook now refers to it, the “Jewish population” in the “administered territories,” now appears in the general Israeli population chart alongside its distribution across the different areas (Judea and Samaria, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights). Second, for the first time, settlements in these areas are mentioned in the report through an aggregate number (60 in total) but these are not counted in the total count of Israeli localities. Yet they are also not called settlements, but rather “Jewish localities in the Administered Territories.”
In the 1982 yearbook (data for 1981) the title of the chapter on the territories changes from “Administrated Territories” to “Judea and Samaria, Gaza Area and Sinai.” Likewise, in the Israeli population chart by district and sub-district, the counting of Jewish population in these areas no longer refers to the area as “administrated territories” but rather simply Judea and Samaria, Gaza Area & Sinai and the Golan. While the Jewish population in these areas is counted in the total of Israeli population, the localities, or settlements there (112) are not included in the total count of Israeli localities and there’s no information on their divisions between the different territories. A footnote states that “Bedouin tribes and Jewish localities in Judea and Samaria, Gaza Area, Sinai and the Golan heights are not included in the [Israeli] localities.” The migration into the Israeli count is completed only in the 1983 yearbook (data for 1982) in which settlement localities are now counted in the total number of Israeli localities.
The final integration takes place in the 1997 yearbook (data for 1996) in which there is no longer a chapter on Judea, Samaria and Gaza. By now, as we have seen, the Jewish population and localities in these areas have been fully integrated into the count of total Israelis and total Israeli localities. The chapter on the territories – which addressed only statistics on the Palestinian population – is no longer present in the CBS yearbooks. The bounds of Israeli statistics, then, include the settler populations and settlements but exclude or erase from the yearbook the wider context of Palestinian population and localities among which settlers and settlements are physically located (see figure 2).
Figure 2. summarizing the evolution of CBS’s treatment of the West Bank
But how many settlements and settlers are there really?
As we have seen, we can isolate information on the number of settlers and of settlements in the CBS yearbooks from 1976 onward. However, when compared with data collected from other non-governmental monitoring NGOs, we are confronted with the challenge that these different sources have different numbers than those of the CBS. Below is a chart comparing the number of settlements provided by the CBS, Peace Now (which has a settlement monitoring division) and B’tselem, a human rights organization.
Why do we find that for different years there are different figures by each source for the number of settlements? It appears that each body is working with different definitions and classification schemes, and those also seem to change over time and sometimes changes are also applied to data compilation retroactively. We provide here just a few illustrative examples that reveal the amount of digging one must do in order to try to clarify the picture.
- Shani Livne is a locality that traverses the Green Line separating Israel proper from the West Bank. A part of this locality is built inside the Green Line and a part outside of it. Peace Now and B’tselem count it as a settlement while the CBS does not. In the CBS data, it is considered a locality in the South District of Israel.
- The Palestinian town of Hebron has a Jewish enclave within it. Peace Now includes the Hebron enclave in its settlements count. The CBS, however, does not count it as an Israeli locality in Judea and Samaria, yet its population is counted in the total population count of Israelis in Judea and Samaria. B’tselem does not include Hebron in its settlements count but provides separate information on settlements in the Hebron area and East Jerusalem.
- Gilad Farm was established in 2002 by Itay Zar following the murder of his brother Gilad by a Palestinian. Originally there were four families residing there. In 2014 the residents reached an understanding with then Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon – they will remove four structures and in return the Minister promised to “legalize” the place. There continued a legal dispute on the matter, since the understanding was never formalized. In February 2018, the Israeli government voted to recognize the outpost by defining it as a new locality or by establishing a new locality near it. Yet this government decision has not yet been implemented. The CBS does not include Gilad Farm in its localities count, B’tselem does include it in its settlements list, and Peace Now includes it in its list of outposts, but not in its settlements list.
- Some settlements that are counted by Peace Now are considered in the CBS data as simply “neighborhoods” of existing settlements.
The last example points to another difficulty in monitoring the number and population size of settlements currently and historically. While Peace Now, for example, collects information and compiles a list of “illegal outposts” – Jewish localities in the West Bank that are unrecognized by the state – the CBS does not include information about these localities. Accounting for the number and change over time of these outposts that have no clearly designated presence in the CBS reports is another vastly complicated task. As stated, Peace Now collects as much information on outposts as possible. According to the organization, their number in 2019 stood at 121. Yet discrepancies exist in cases where, for example, Peace Now counts an outpost but the Ministry of Defense (and hence likely the CBS too) considers it to be a “neighborhood” of an existing settlement. The Ministry of Defense itself considers other localities to be outposts, yet Peace Now does not count these, as their monitoring shows that these are places without permanent residents but rather spots for itinerant “hilltop youth” who have transitory presence at the spot. Other considerations abound as, for example, the government under Benjamin Netanyahu has worked to recognize some outposts as “legitimate” settlements or part of existing settlements, while others continue to be built.
When comparing population totals of Israelis in the West Bank, which the CBS and independent organizations like Peace Now and B’tselem provide, again we witness some smaller and larger differences. In some years there are gaps of between a few hundred or a few thousand. In addition, it is not clear where the residents of “illegal outposts” count in the CBS’s or the independent organizations’ reports. It is likely that the CBS includes outposts population numbers in its count of population of nearby settlements. Peace Now has attempted in 2008 and 2011 to conduct an estimation of the population of the outposts through aerial photos of the number of residential structures in each outpost but these, as stated, were only rough estimates, further muddying the picture of actual Jewish population distribution in the West Bank.
Accounting for the differences in order to identify the accurate settlements, outposts, and population numbers historically and today is a painstaking work that requires back and forth correspondence with the CBS and the other monitoring organizations and interviewing different staff who have been at various points in charge of collecting and arranging such information over the decades. We have embarked on some of this work for this paper, but the task requires tremendous time of careful investigation. And this is even before considering other aspects of settlements data – such as budget allocations over the years and currently. Such data are spread among hundreds of bodies, from the various government ministries, to local municipalities and local councils, to the military, and to independent organizations operating in the West Bank. What this paper shows, therefore, is that even though data collection and presentation by the Israeli government through the practices of the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) has worked to integrate and normalize settlements and settlers in Israel’s annual statistical yearbooks over the past five decades, they remain a much murkier data terrain in comparison to localities and populations within the Green Line.
 We would like to thank Mabelle Kretchner for excellent research assistance for this project.
 Lara Jakes and David M. Halbfinger, “In Shift, U.S. Says Israeli Settlements in West Bank Do Not Violate International Law.” The New York Times, 18 November 2019.
 Tova Lazaroff and Lahav Harkov, “Netanyahu: We will move forward with annexation in July.” Jerusalem Post, 26 May 2020; Tova Lazaroff Settlers push annexation map without enclaves.” Jerusalem Post, 17 June 2020.
 In the CBS website and publications, the Yearbooks are called “Statistical Abstracts of Israel.” We use the tern Yearbook in this paper for brevity.
 CBS Statistical Yearbook 1967.
 CBS Statistical Yearbook 1968.
 CBS Statistical Yearbook 1970. Although even at this point, some settlements are considered too small to hold a census in and are assumed to have fewer than 50 residents.
 CBS Statistical Yearbook 1977.
 CBS Statistical Yearbook 1982.
 In cases where an individual outpost is later recognized or “legalized” by the state, the CBS then includes it in its count of localities.