Israeli settlers' population surges under Netanyahu

West Bank outposts jumped 18 pct., affecting the peace process. Plus, a new report could boost construction.

Posted: July 11, 2012

JERUSALEM - Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was elected more than three years ago, the Jewish population in the West Bank has ballooned 18 percent, drawing tens of thousands of Israelis to the territory the Palestinians claim as the heartland of a future state, according to figures obtained by the Associated Press.

The rate of growth - nearly twice that of Israel proper - has deep implications for an already moribund peace process. The issue is at the heart of a three-year-old impasse in Middle East peace efforts, and critics say each new settlement home makes it ever tougher for the Israelis and the Palestinians to reach the territorial compromise that would be needed for any agreement.

In addition, a government-commissioned report released Monday could clear the way for further construction. It recommended that Israel legalize dozens of unsanctioned West Bank settlement outposts, despite international opposition to the enclaves, and proposed other measures to facilitate settlement construction. That could give Netanyahu ammunition to support new settlement activity and fend off pressure from a supreme court that has ordered the government to take action against the existing outposts.

The report was not binding, and it was not clear whether the prime minister planned to follow through on it. In a statement, he said he would study the document with top advisers.

Commenting on the report, U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said: "We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity and we oppose any effort to legalize settlement outposts."

The rising settler numbers are "consistent with Netanyahu's commitment to maintain the Israeli control over the Palestinian territories," Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib said, "and consistent with his lack of commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution."

Israel, which has a population of almost eight million, has long sought to cement its hold on the West Bank, captured from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war, by having masses of Jewish settlers live there. For years, the two sides had discussed the possibility that in a final peace deal, Israel would maintain some settlements while uprooting others. Israel has shown more than once - especially in 2005, when it removed all of its 8,500 settlers from the Gaza Strip - that it can tear down settlements when it thinks the price is worth it.

But the numbers in the West Bank are much higher, more than tripling since the first interim peace accord of 1993 to more than 342,000 at the end of 2011, according to Interior Ministry figures.

That includes a rise of more than 50,000, or 18 percent, since Netanyahu was elected in early 2009, driven by a high settler birthrate and the migration of Israelis to the West Bank.

The numbers do not include about 200,000 Jews living in areas of Jerusalem that Israel captured in the 1967 war and immediately annexed. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as their capital and, along with the international community, consider these enclaves to be settlements. Israel says east Jerusalem is part of Israel because of the annexation.

Netanyahu has rejected the Palestinian demand for a construction freeze, saying the fate of settlements should be decided in negotiations. In the meantime, his government has authorized the construction of thousands of settler apartments. Just last week, Netanyahu vowed to continue settling the West Bank, including areas deep inside the territory.

Israel began building its more than 120 West Bank settlements immediately after the 1967 Mideast war, drawing sharp criticism from the international community. Israel promised in the mid-1990s not to establish new settlements, as part of its commitment to peacemaking. But earlier this year, it retroactively recognized three unsanctioned settler enclaves as bonafide settlements. It also has allowed existing settlements to continue to grow.

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