JERUSALEM (AFP) – The population in Israel's controversial West Bank settlements has grown twice as much as in Israel itself, military radio said on Tuesday, quoting official statistics.
The figures released by the interior ministry are likely to add to Palestinian misgivings about resuming peace talks in Washington last week with the Israelis. The talks broke down three years ago over the settlement issue.
According to the radio, the figures show an increase of 7,700 settlers in the occupied West Bank during the first six month of 2013 for a total settler population of 367,000.
This represents a 2.1 percent increase in six months compared to an annual population growth of two percent registered in Israel.
The number of settlers in West Bank outposts that could be dismantled as part of an eventual peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians rose by 1.7 percent in the first half of the year, the report added.
The Israeli government on Sunday added 20 settlements to a list drawn up in 2009 of Jewish communities prioritised for aid.
Some of the settlements on the list are strongholds of Jewish Home, a nationalist party in the government coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has rejected Palestinian calls for a freeze on settlement construction as a condition to resume peace talks.
Settlement building in the West Bank and mostly Arab east Jerusalem, which Israel seized in the 1967 Six-Day War, are considered illegal under international law.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed at an initial meeting in Washington last week hosted by US Secretary of State John Kerry to aim for a peace deal within nine months.
But analysts say the issue of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, which triggered the breakdown of the last round of talks in September 2010, would prove even more of a sticking point this time with hardline pro-settler ministers inside the Israeli government.
Yesha, the main settler organisation, has urged the government to launch new tenders for the construction of homes in the settlements to meet what is says is a "growing demand."
Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now has accused the government of encouraging Israelis to move into Jewish settlements.
"The government is offering land free of charge (to settlers)... and under such conditions it is no surprise that Israelis are moving into settlements," said Peace Now head Yariv Oppenheimer.
Meanwhile Jewish Home leader and Economy Minister Naftali Bennet was quoted as saying in media reports that the government was preparing to issue tenders for the construction of new settler homes in east Jerusalem.