Israel’s West Bank settler population now makes up more than half a million people, a pro-settler group said Thursday, crossing a major threshold. Settler leaders predicted even faster population growth under Israel’s new ultranationalist government.
The report, by WestBankJewishPopulationStats.com and based on official figures, showed the settler population grew to 502,991 as of Jan. 1, rising more than 2.5% in 12 months and nearly 16% over the last five years.
“We’ve reached a huge hallmark,” said Baruch Gordon, the director of the group and a resident of the Beit El settlement. “We’re here to stay.”
The milestone comes as Israel’s new government, made up of ultranationalist parties who oppose Palestinian statehood, has placed expanding settlements at the top of its priority list. Already the government has pledged to legalize wildcat outposts that have long enjoyed tacit government support and to ramp up approval and construction of settler homes around the West Bank.
“I think that in the coming years of this government there will be more building than there has been in the last 20 years of governments,” Gordon said.
Settlements have flourished under every Israeli government, including at the height of the peace process in the 1990s. Even Israel’s short-lived previous government, which included parties supporting Palestinian statehood along with those opposing it, continued to build settlements, The Associated Press reported.
The settler population report does not include annexed east Jerusalem, home to more than 200,000 settlers. The West Bank and east Jerusalem are together home to some 3 million Palestinians.
Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek those territories for an independent state.
Although Israel withdrew troops and several thousand settlers from Gaza in 2005, it has charged ahead with settlement building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Dozens of settlements dot the territory, some as small as a few mobile homes and others sprawling cities, with malls and public transport of their own.
Much of the international community views the settlements as illegitimate and an obstacle to peace. The Palestinians see them as a land grab that undermines their chances to establish a viable, contiguous state.