JERUSALEM – The number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank is now over 300,000, an Israeli newspaper reported Monday, as U.S. envoys arrived to press Israel to agree to a settlement freeze.
The report in the Haaretz daily comes at a time of dispute between Israel and an American administration eager to see a halt in settlement construction.
President Barack Obama's Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, was to meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres on Monday and then with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, part of a visit dedicated to resolving the differences marring the relationship between the two allies.
Obama's national security adviser, James Jones, and top Iran and Mideast adviser Dennis Ross, are also due in Israel this week. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates paid a brief visit to the country on Monday, arriving in the morning and leaving at midday.
Quoting statistics compiled by the military, the Haaretz report said the number of West Bank settlers is currently at an all-time high of 304,569 — a 2.3 percent increase since January.
Military spokesman Maj. Guy Inbar would not comment on the report, which he said was based on a leaked document.
According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, there were 289,600 West Bank settlers at the end of 2008.
The number of Israeli settlers has more than doubled since the mid-1990s in the West Bank, which is home to around 2.5 million Palestinians. Some 8,000 Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip were pulled out by the Israeli government in 2005.
To help restart peace talks, the U.S. has been pressing Israel to halt all construction in settlements built on land claimed by the Palestinians for a future state. But Israel insists some construction must continue to allow "natural growth" in the settler population.
The settlements are seen by the international community as an obstacle to a peace agreement, and the Palestinians say they will not resume peace talks while construction continues.
In the Gaza Strip, four Palestinians died overnight when a smuggling tunnel between Gaza and Egypt collapsed and trapped them inside, according to Dr. Moaiya Hassanain of Gaza's Health Ministry. Hamas-controlled Gaza is subject to an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, and many goods are brought in through underground tunnels. Collapses are common.