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Israel's settlement population growing rapidly amid staunch US support, says settler group

Population of Israeli settlements in occupied West Bank, not including East Jerusalem, said to increase by 3.3 percent in 2018
Number of people living in Israeli settlements increased to 449,508 by end of 2018, settler group says (AFP)

The population of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank has surged since Donald Trump became US president, according to data released by an Israeli settlement group.

The increase can be credited to the White House's lack of criticism of the settlements and staunch support for Israeli policies, Baruch Gordon, director of West Bank Jewish Population Stats, told the Associated Press on Tuesday.

"It's just simply opened up. There’s no longer this cloud looming over it," Gordon said.

"Since the change of the US administration, the atmosphere for construction permits has become much easier. They’re being given with greater ease," he added.

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Using data obtained by the Israeli interior ministry, the West Bank Jewish Population Stats report calculated population growth in the settlements from 1 January 2018  to 1 January 2019.

It found the Israeli settlement population increased by 3.3 percent over the course of 2018, from 435,159 settlers to 449,508 by the end of the year.

The data also suggests Israel's settlement population grew across the board, both in large and small settlements across the occupied West Bank, not including East Jerusalem, where about 200,000 Israeli settlers live.

Gordon told AP he expected "to see a huge surge in the numbers" going forward, as well.

Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics said the Israeli population as a whole grew by 1.9 percent over the course of 2018. The country's interior ministry did not confirm whether the settlement group's data is accurate, AP reported.

Still, Gordon credited the growth to Trump's pro-Israel policies, and that was echoed by Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who told AP the settlement population increase was a "direct result" of Trump’s policies in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

"The American support for settlements through silence is doomed to failure because there is no peace and stability without an agreement with the Palestinian people and its legitimate leadership," Abu Rdeneh added.

Since taking office in 2016, the Trump administration has been open about its unwavering support for the Israeli government, despite its human rights abuses against Palestinians and continued expansion of settlements, which are illegal under international law.

Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, angering Palestinians and much of the rest of the world. His administration has also cut foreign aid to the occupied Palestinian territories and kept silent about Israel's settlement expansion.

Meanwhile, dozens of Likud party members, including several high-ranking Israeli politicians, pledged on Tuesday to support a movement that hopes to increase Israel's settler population to two million, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Israeli ministers Israel Katz and Miri Regev, and Yuli Edelstein, the Israeli parliament speaker, all signed a declaration backing the Nahal movement, which pushes for unbridled Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.

They signed the pledge on the eve of the Likud primaries, as the party prepares for Israeli parliamentary elections in April.