JERUSALEM (AP) – While Israel has emptied its Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, the population in its West Bank settlements has quickly grown over the past year, a government official said Friday.
The population in the West Bank settlements grew by 12,800 in the year ended in June, to about 246,000 people, said Gilad Heiman, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.
Heiman said the roughly 5 percent increase was due to new births in the settlements and an influx of new residents. He could not a breakdown for each figure.
Israel this week completed the evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four isolated enclaves in the West Bank. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said the withdrawal would bolster Israel”s control over large settlement blocs in the West Bank, where the vast majority of Jewish settlers live.
In the largest West Bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim, the population grew by about 1,000 people in the same period, Heiman said.
Earlier this week, Israel said it had issued land-seizure orders to confiscate land around Maaleh Adumim, which is home to about 30,000 settlers, for construction of a massive separation barrier. The barrier will go around the settlement, located about five miles (eight kilometers) east of Jerusalem, effectively annexing the land. The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank as part of a future independent state, with east Jerusalem as their capital. They say the barrier and expansion of Maaleh Adumim and other settlements will make it impossible to create a viable independent state.
The United States has repeatedly criticized Israel for constructing in the settlements, saying it pre-empts a final agreement with the Palestinians. However, President George W. Bush has said a final settlement would have to recognize "new realities" on the ground.