A study by Peace Now, based on Israeli government figures, released Tuesday reveals that, despite Israel’s ‘disengagement’ from the Palestinian Gaza Strip in August and September of 2005, the overall population of Israeli settlers on Palestinian land increased by 12,000 in 2005.The settlers that were relocated from the Gaza Strip in 2005 numbered about 9,000, and most were given large financial settlements and mortgage incentives to move from their illegal settlements on Palestinian land.  But while the highly-publicized evacuation of settlers from the Gaza Strip was taking place, the settlements in the Palestinian West Bank (housing approximately 250,000 Israelis) continued to grow.

In fact, according to the study, the overall settlement growth rate remained at the same rate as 2004: "The annual growth rate of the population in the settlements remains at 5.5%, in comparison the annual population growth rate for the overall Israeli population is 1.8%."

With the removal of the 21 Gaza Strip settlements, the total number of settlements decreased to 121, while the total number of settlers in existing settlements grew.  The study gives the following population counts: "December 2004: 243,900 settlers, 146 settlements; December 2005: 250,000 settlers, 121 settlements."  Nearly all of the settlers living illegally on Palestinian land are living in the Palestinian West Bank.  An additional 200,000 live in East Jerusalem, an area where Israeli Wall construction and disenfranchisement of Palestinians from their lands continue every day in the midst of heated protest and massive non-violent civil disobedience.

Dror Etkes, who monitors Israeli settlement growth for the group Peace Now, which released today’s report, expects a heavily-publicized ‘withdrawal’ from 102 illegal West Bank outposts — along the lines of the Amona withdrawal last week (amidst large, violent protests of extremist settler youth) — while at the same time further expanding existing settlements.

Etkes told Deutsche Presse-Agentur Tuesday that Israel was speeding up construction especially in settlements along the ‘green’ armistice line separating it from the West Bank and several around Jerusalem.  "Israel plans to annex those settlements as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians or as part of further unilateral moves."

The current and planned expansion of settlements is a violation of the agreement made between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority in 2000.  Says Etkes, "Of the current 102 such outposts in the West Bank, 52 have been built since March 2001. The international road map peace plan demands that Israel uproot all outposts set up since that date."