AFP — Successive Israeli governments have invested billions of dollars over the past 50 years on settlements in the West Bank, making any future withdrawal from the territory a costly proposition.
There is no official overall figure for Israel’s spending on Jewish settlements since the June 1967 Six Day War, when Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, along with the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula.
Each year, the Finance Ministry has published partial figures, amounting to $3.5 billion over the 12 years up to 2015, but the sum does not include investments before 2003.
It also does not cover the vast amounts spent on infrastructure such as special roads reserved for settlers and on their security.
Watchdog groups put the number of settlers at more than 600,000. However this number includes more than 250,000 Israelis living in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed and does not consider to be settlements.
The spending figures also do not include the Gaza Strip which Israel also captured in 1967 but from where its army and settlers pulled out in 2005. Then Israel evacuated some 8,000 settlers from Gaza in a massive military-coordinated operation.
Jewish settlements beyond the 1949 armistice lines are viewed by most international leaders as illegal. Israel disputes this, as there was no legal sovereign there prior to its taking control, and claims a historical tie to the biblical Judea and Samaria.
Roby Nathanson, head of the Macro Center for Political Economics, which publishes reports on settlements, estimates the total costs since June 1967 as $20 billion.
The total surface area of settlement construction in the West Bank has doubled in 18 years, according to the non-governmental organization.
As a financial incentive for the expansion of settlements, the average settler receives three times more in public subsidies than an Israeli living within the Green Line.
Shlomo Swirski of the Adva Center, another NGO, estimates that Israel spent $15.2 billion between 1988 and 2015 alone.
“This burden has contributed to deepening social inequality in as much as the money goes to settlements and their defense at the expense of social budgets,” he said.
Despite the huge sums injected into settlements, several activists who want to see a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state alongside Israel, say that settlements are not irreversible.
The Israeli economy has the means to finance the resettlement inside the country of 100,000 Jews, according to Gilad Sher, a former close aide to ex-prime minister Ehud Barak, estimating the cost at $10 billion.
Sher, a founder of Blue-White Future which advocates “the Jewish and democratic future of Israel”, was referring to an estimate of the number of residents of isolated West Bank settlements beyond Israel’s security barrier, which are considered the most likely to be evacuated under any peace settlement with the Palestinians.
The political consensus in Israel favors annexation of the large settlement blocs which are home to 300,000 Jews.
“We have drawn up a detailed and credible plan on the removal of 100,000 settlers” because the government has refused to do so despite an official recommendation dating back to 2010, said Sher.
“Our conclusions are clear: the situation is by no means irreversible. Economic options exist for the implementation of a solution of two states for two peoples.”
Nathanson said it was “perfectly possible” to envisage a withdrawal of 100,000 settlers in phases over a period of two to three years.
“The problem is not an economic one, it is above all political,” he said.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.