JERUSALEM – An Israeli government official said Friday the population in its West Bank (search) settlements has grown by more than 12,000 in the past year, reinforcing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) goal of strengthening large settlement blocs while withdrawing from the Gaza Strip.
The latest figures drew new criticism from Palestinian officials, who accused Israel of undermining prospects for peace.
Israel this week completed the evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza (search) and four isolated enclaves in the West Bank. About 9,000 settlers were removed from their homes.
Sharon has repeatedly said the withdrawal would help consolidate Israel's control over large settlement blocs in the West Bank, where the vast majority of Jewish settlers live. New figures from the Interior Ministry show robust growth in these blocs.
Gilad Heiman, a ministry spokesman, said the settler population in the West Bank grew to about 246,000 in June, an increase of 12,800, or 5 percent, over the previous year.
He said the increase stemmed from new births and an influx of new residents, though he could not provide a breakdown. Many families are attracted to the settlements because of their lower housing prices and proximity to the large cities of Jerusalem (search) and Tel Aviv (search).
Dozens of families uprooted from Gaza this month have been given temporary housing in West Bank settlements, though it remains unclear how many want to remain permanently.
On Friday, an Israeli woman died from burns inflicted when she set herself on fire last week to protest the Gaza withdrawal, hospital officials said. Yelena Bosinova, 54, a resident of the Kedumim settlement in the West Bank, is the only Israeli to die during the evacuation, which was marked by emotional but largely nonviolent resistance.
The Maariv daily said the populations of two large ultra-Orthodox settlements near Jerusalem, Betar Illit and Kiryat Sefer, together grew by about 5,500 in the past year. Maaleh Adumim, the largest settlement, grew by about 1,000 people, Heiman said.
Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon, said the Israeli public widely supports expansion of the settlement blocs. "We don't regard the situation of those large settlement blocs ... any differently from any other place in Israel," he said.
Shoval said the U.S. has supported this view. In May 2004, President Bush said a final settlement with the Palestinians would have to recognize "new realities" on the ground, although he also has criticized the continued expansion of settlements.
The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank as part of a future independent state, with east Jerusalem as their capital. They say the continued expansion of settlements will make it impossible to establish a viable state.
"Settlements and peace are two parallels that won't meet," said Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat. "I hope their choice will be peace, not settlements."
Earlier this week, Israel said it had issued land-seizure orders to confiscate private Palestinian property around Maaleh Adumim for construction of a massive separation barrier. The barrier will go around the settlement, located about five miles east of Jerusalem, effectively annexing the land.
Israel plans to build about 3,500 housing units in the area between Maaleh Adumim and Jerusalem, although officials say the project is years away. The Palestinians say the construction would cut off access to Jerusalem and cut the West Bank into two.
While Sharon's Gaza withdrawal has won wide support among the Israeli public, many members of his hard-line Likud Party are furious.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon's biggest rival in the party, will announce next week that he intends to challenge Sharon in primary elections, said Michael Ratzon, a Likud lawmaker and Netanyahu supporter.
Netanyahu, a former prime minister, would beat Sharon in Likud primaries, 42 percent to 35 percent, according to a poll published Friday in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper.
But Sharon remains more popular with the general public, according to the poll. In national elections, Sharon, aligned with a new, centrist party, would beat Netanyahu 24 percent to 16 percent, the daily said.
Netanyahu resigned as finance minister earlier this month to protest the Gaza withdrawal and has been widely expected to challenge Sharon for the party leadership.
But most Israelis are in favor of further withdrawals from the West Bank, according to the Yediot poll. The survey found that 54 percent of Israelis want more pullouts from the territory the Palestinians want for a future state, while 42 percent do not.
Netanyahu's popularity in the Likud has raised speculation that Sharon will leave the hawkish party and form a moderate movement with other veteran politicians. Several Sharon advisers back such a move, Israeli media have reported. The Yediot poll showed that Sharon would bring almost one-third of Likud members with him.
The Yediot poll questioned 501 people. It did not give a margin of error.
Also Friday, the militant group Hamas held a large rally in Gaza to celebrate the Israeli pullout. About 5,000 people, including men carrying anti-tank rockets, rifles and submachine guns. The group repeated its calls to avenge an Israeli arrest raid that killed five Palestinians in the West Bank this week.
Meanwhile, officials said Friday the Palestinian Authority (search) is looking for new names for evacuated Jewish settlements, and is considering calling some of them after the late Palestinian leaders Yasser Arafat (search) and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin (search), the founder of Hamas (search) who was killed by an Israeli missile in 2004.
"In the last Cabinet session we discussed changing the names of the evacuated settlements in Gaza, and there were suggestions like naming some of these places after martyrs, particularly Arafat and Ahmed Yassin," said Samir Huleileh, the Palestinian Cabinet secretary-general, adding that no decision had yet been taken.