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Sep 16, 2:26 PM EDT

West Bank settler group boasts rapid growth


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JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel's settler population in the West Bank increased by 2 percent in the first half of the year, an advocacy group announced Tuesday, signaling robust growth in the settlements even while Israel was conducting peace talks with the Palestinians.

The new figures drew criticism from the Palestinians, who seek the West Bank as part of a future state. The Palestinians and most of the international community consider Israeli construction there to be illegal or illegitimate.

Gaza militants meanwhile fired a mortar round at southern Israel for the first time since a 50-day war between Israel and Hamas ended with a cease-fire last month. The attack did not wound anyone or cause any damage, the military said. It was not immediately clear if Israel would respond.

A Hamas security official said the group was not behind the attack. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.

The Gaza war -- the third in just over five years -- left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead, the majority of them civilians, according to Palestinian and U.N. officials. On the Israeli side, 66 soldiers and six civilians were killed.

The Yesha Council, the official umbrella group representing the more than 100 Jewish settlements in the West Bank, said the settler population grew to 382,031 as of June 30, up 2 percent from 374,469 on Dec. 31. The projected 4 percent annual growth rate would be more than double Israel's nationwide growth rate, according to official figures.

"It is clear that it is a thriving community that is here to stay," said Dani Dayan, the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha Council.

Dayan said the increase was driven by a combination of natural population growth as well as an influx of Israelis drawn to the West Bank for ideological, lifestyle or economic reasons. Many settlers are Orthodox Jews, who tend to have larger families. But housing in the settlements is generally cheaper than inside Israel, where even a modest apartment in major urban areas can cost more than $500,000, making the settlements an attractive destination for younger families.

Dayan said the growth "was across the board," including ultra-Orthodox communities, more mainstream settlements that function as suburbs of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, and isolated, ideologically driven settlements deep inside the West Bank.

The four largest settlements, for instance, posted growth of 1.9 percent during the six-month period, while the "Shomron" region in the northern West Bank, home to some smaller, more isolated communities, grew by 3.8 percent, according to the figures. Yesha said the numbers came from Israel's Interior Ministry, which maintains population records. A ministry spokeswoman had no immediate comment.

Settlement construction remained a source of tension in the latest round of U.S.-mediated peace talks, which broke down in April after nine months with no sign of progress.

Israel refused Palestinian demands to stop settlement construction - prompting Palestinian accusations that Israel wasn't serious about peace. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also complained that the construction raised questions about Israel's commitment to peace.

"These numbers released by the settlers council are an indication of Israel's policy of lawlessness, policy of colonization, and land theft, policy of destroying the two-state solution and the chances of peace," said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official.

"This did not happen by chance," she said. "This is a matter of Israeli support, Israeli government and official support."

Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek all three areas for their state. After two decades of failed on-again, off-again negotiations, the Palestinians now plan on asking the U.N. Security Council later this month to recognize a Palestinian state in these areas, and to give Israel a deadline to withdraw.

"The world has seen enough and it needs to move now. We are going to the U.N. Security Council soon requesting the end of the Israeli occupation on the state of Palestine along the 1967 borders," said Hanna Amereh, another Palestinian official.Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel must retain parts of the West Bank and will never withdraw from east Jerusalem - home to key Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites. Israel has annexed east Jerusalem, and some 200,000 Israelis now live there, even though the annexation is not internationally recognized. Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, though it maintains control over the area's airspace, seacoast and much of its land borders.

Yariv Oppenheimer, director of the anti-settlement group Peace Now, said the rapid growth rate proves that settlements are not just experiencing natural growth, but that Israel is "exporting new settlers from Israel." But he said that most settlers continue to live in blocs that are expected to remain under Israeli control under any future peace deal.

"Although it's becoming more difficult and more complicated to separate for a two-state solution, we are not in a point of no return," he said.

Dayan, the settler leader, said the settlements have been unfairly labeled by the international community as an "obstacle to peace." He said that by preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state, the settlements are actually promoting stability in an unstable region where extremist groups are on the rise.

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Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak contributed to this report from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.

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