Israel’s West Bank settler population grew nearly 3%. Supporters say Gaza war could give new push

JERUSALEM (AP) — The population of Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank grew nearly 3% in 2023, according to a new report based on population statistics from the Israeli government.

The report, released Sunday by the pro-settler group WestBankJewishPopulationStats.com, found the settler population jumped to 517,407 as of Dec. 31, from 502,991 a year earlier.

The settler population has grown over 15% in the last five years, the report said. Last year, it passed the half-million mark, a major threshold.

This year’s report predicted “accelerated growth” in the coming years, claiming the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel, which triggered the current war in Gaza, persuaded many Israelis who were formerly opposed to settlement-building on occupied land to change positions.

“Serious cracks have indeed developed in the wall of opposition to Jewish settlement of the West Bank,” it said.

Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek all three areas for an independent state.

The international community overwhelmingly considers Israel’s settlements to be illegal and obstacles to peace by occupying land the Palestinians seek for their state. Israel considers the West Bank to be “disputed” and says the territory’s fate should be decided in negotiations. The Biden administration recently sanctioned four settlers for violence against Palestinians and activists in the West Bank.

The report projected that if the growth rate over the past five years continues, the settler population in the West Bank will exceed 600,000 before 2030.

The report did not include population figures for east Jerusalem, where more than 200,000 Israelis live in settlements that Israel considers to be neighborhoods of its capital. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as their would-be capital.

Israel’s government is dominated by settler leaders and supporters. The Israeli watchdog group Terrestrial Jerusalem says that since the start of Israel’s war in Gaza on Oct. 7, three settlement plans were either approved or are about to be approved in east Jerusalem.

Terrestrial Jerusalem called the speed of settlement approval processes over the last few months “frenetic.”

The report comes as a spasm of violence grips the West Bank.

Since the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, Israel has held the West Bank under a tight grip — limiting movement and conducting frequent raids on what it says are militant targets.

Palestinian health officials say 391 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank during that period. Most have been killed in clashes with Israeli forces. But the Israeli rights group Yesh Din says settlers shot and killed nine Palestinians in just the first month and a half of the war, among 225 incidents of Israeli civilian violence the group documented during that time.

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