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Jewish settler population in West Bank passes half a million


More than half a million Jewish residents now live in the West Bank — a record number that owes to the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territory, expected to ramp up under Israel’s new far-right government.

The Jewish population in the West Bank has reached nearly 503,000, according to a report released Thursday by the pro-settlement group WestBankJewishPopulationStats.com, based on official statistics from Israel’s Interior Ministry. That is an increase of about 16 percent over five years, the report found, as the settler movement gains momentum, dashing prospects for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The attitude of our detractors, both globally and those in Israel, has been to ignore the presence of Jews in Judea and Samaria,” said Baruch Gordon, one of the authors of the report and a resident of the Beit El settlement, using a biblical name for the West Bank. They “say eventually they’ll go away with a globally negotiated peace deal,” he said. But “the facts on the ground are saying that we crossed the threshold of 500,000 — half a million — and that is a major mark and we’re here to stay.”

The half-million figure does not include some 340,000 Jewish residents of East Jerusalem neighborhoods, which are technically part of the West Bank. Some 3.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, according to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. The area has been under Israeli occupation since 1967. Palestinians have long seen East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza as part of a future state.

The Oslo accords in the 1990s were intended to set the stage for the establishment of such a state. They granted Palestinians a degree of self-rule in some parts of the West Bank, while Israel retained full control of security and land management in a large swath of the territory. In the decades since, with explicit or tacit support from Israeli authorities, Jewish settlements have steadily expanded, displacing Palestinians in the process. Most of the international community considers the settlements illegal.

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Based on the growth rate of the past five years, Gordon’s group projects that the Jewish population in the West Bank — outside of East Jerusalem — will surpass 1 million by 2047. That’s a conservative estimate, he said, noting that the high cost of housing within Israel’s 1948 boundaries is a driver of movement to West bank settlements, especially for large, religiously observant families.

Palestinians and international rights groups accuse Israel of upholding a system of apartheid, in which Jewish settlers in the West Bank are subject to Israeli civil law while Palestinians live under military rule and do not have equal rights. Israeli authorities restrict Palestinians’ movements, building rights and access to resources. Israel rejects allegations of apartheid.

U.S. officials continue to promote a two-state solution, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken warning against moves “toward annexation in the West Bank” during a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories last week. But Israel’s de facto annexation of the area has rendered moot any discussion of a Palestinian state in the near future, both sides say.

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Previous Israeli governments have encouraged the growth of Jewish settlements for years, including through tax benefits. Recent years have seen settlers deploy new tactics to drive Palestinians from their land, including by grazing livestock on land as a prelude to seizing it, according to Dror Sadot, a spokeswoman for B’Tselem, which opposes the settlements.

“We should not exceptionalize this government from others,” she said. “On the other hand, we should not normalize the situation, because it can get much worse.”

Settlements are set to expand further under Israel’s new government, which has vowed to legalize dozens of illegally built outposts and advance formal annexation of the West Bank. Settler violence, already on the rise, is likely to increase, Sadot said. “I think the settlers will feel much more protected now that the leaders are sitting around the table.”

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Top officials include Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-right provocateur from the Religious Zionism movement who lives in the hard-line Kiryat Arba settlement near Hebron, where residents have harassed and assaulted Palestinians for decades. A leader in the settler movement, Ben Gvir built a legal career defending Jewish extremists accused of terrorism and hate crimes, and has himself been convicted of inciting racism against Arabs. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named Ben Gvir national security minister, with an expanded portfolio that includes control over Israeli police and the security forces that operate in the West Bank. Ben Gvir has proposed giving police and soldiers wider latitude to use live ammunition and more legal protection for killing or injuring Palestinians.

Last week, Netanyahu agreed to hand control of civilian authority over Area C — the 60 percent of the West Bank under Israeli civil and military authority — to Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionism party and Israel’s new finance minister, according to Israeli media reports. The role could put Smotrich in the position to turn a blind eye to illegal Israeli construction in the West Bank while cracking down on illegal Palestinian construction.

Israeli settlers carried out dozens of attacks targeting Palestinians across the West Bank on Saturday, after a Palestinian gunman killed seven people outside a synagogue in East Jerusalem on Friday. Ben Gvir demanded that in exchange for the seven killed, the government should authorize seven illegal settlements in the West Bank, Israel’s Channel 12 News reported.

“Netanyahu has no choice” but to expand settlements, Gordon said. “If he tries to slow down the rate of construction, his partners will get up and say, ‘This is not the agreement, and if you don’t stick to the agreement, your government will fall.’”

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.