Israeli settlement population up 4.3 per cent in 2011: lawmaker

AFP , Sunday 15 Jan 2012

Whereas settlements have been the sticking point preventing direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians, Tel Aviv continues to approve new construction, with the settler population rising

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd R) speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem January 1, 2012. (Photo:Reuters)

The number of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank at the end of 2011 rose by 4.3 per cent compared with the previous year, reaching 342,414, an Israeli lawmaker said in a statement Sunday.

Citing official data obtained from the Israeli Interior Ministry, Yaakov Katz of the far-right National Union Party said there were now more than 700,000 Israelis living in areas occupied by Israel in 1967, including East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

Katz said some 300,000 Jews now live in East Jerusalem, along with 20,000 in the Golan, both beyond the so-called Green Line, the armistice line agreed upon after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

Another 60,000 Jewish Israelis study at institutions in West Bank settlements, meaning there are "currently 720,000 Jews residing beyond the Green Line," Katz said.

Katz said the 4.3 per cent rise in the West Bank was low compared with 2009, when the figure jumped by seven per cent from the previous year.

He also pointed out that the growth took place primarily in areas where the land was owned by regional councils, rather than in "settlement blocs" and cities or local councils, where the Defense Ministry must approve any new construction.

Israeli settlement construction has proved a consistent sticking point in talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Direct talks that began in September 2010 quickly broke down over the issue.

Israel declined to renew a partial settlement freeze that expired in 2010, and the Palestinians say they will not enter into talks while Tel Aviv continues to build on land they want for their future state.

Israel captured the West Bank, the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and Gaza during the 1967 Six-Day War, and considers all of Jerusalem its "eternal, undivided" capital.

The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state, and furiously denounce new settlement construction in the eastern sector of the city, as well as in the West Bank. Syria demands the return of the Golan Heights.

Last week, an Israeli NGO that opposes settlement construction said approvals for Jewish settler homes in East Jerusalem had reached their highest number in a decade in 2011.

According to the Peace Now report, Israel gave final approval for the construction of 3,690 homes in occupied Arab East Jerusalem in 2011, despite Palestinian and international condemnation.

The closest number in the past decade was in 2002, when 2,653 new homes were approved.

The report also said that settlement construction starts in the West Bank rose in 2011 by 20 per cent compared with the previous year.

On Sunday, UN chief Ban Ki-moon called for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, saying the illegal building of settlements worked against a two-state solution.

"Settlements, new and old, are illegal. They work against the emergence of a viable Palestinian state," the UN secretary general said.

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