Many settlers complain that the official policy of "construction freeze" is suffocating natural growth and inflating property prices, while Palestinians and the international community complain that Israel's continued settlement expansion violates its commitments to the Annapolis summit and the road map. So who is telling the truth?
While the number of actual settlements has remained static since the mid-1990s, construction in the West Bank has hardly come to a halt. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the number of settlers has more than doubled - from 116,300 that year to 285,800 in 2008. Approximately 100 new settlements, or "outposts," have been established by right-wing activists since the mid-1990s, typically consisting of small clusters of caravans.
The outposts are considered illegal and the government has committed itself to evacuating them. Nevertheless, millions of shekels from the public purse have funded water, electricity, roads and security in what some settlers call "start-up communities." Despite the controversy they arouse, the outposts have a combined population of around 3,000 and the largest, Migron, east of Ramallah, is home to just 40 families.
According to Peace Now, which monitors settlement expansion via satellite photography and field research, 1,518 new structures were built in the settlements in 2008, 39 percent of which are east of the security fence. Data from the Central Bureau of Statistics shows that population in the settlements grew by 4.9 percent in 2008, compared to 1.8% for Israel as a whole.
"The high population growth rate in West Bank settlements primarily reflects the fact that Israelis are continuing to move into settlements, especially the haredi settlements located west of the separation barrier, and the fact that haredi settlers have a very high birthrate," said Peace Now in a February 2009 report.
Last year, the government issued tenders for the construction of 539 housing units in settlements west of the fence (Elkana, Ariel, Efrat, Betar Illit, Alfei Menashe) and granted permits for large projects including 950 housing units in Ma'aleh Adumim, 800 in Givat Ze'ev and 100 in Ariel. Most of these settlements have a secular population and are expected to be annexed to Israel if a peace deal with the Palestinians ever materializes. Nevertheless, the population continues to rise in religious settlements in the heart of the West Bank which are destined for evacuation in the event of a two-state solution, including Tekoa (11.6% population growth), Psagot (4.6%), Mitzpe Yeriho (5.6%) and Ofra (3.3%).