Report: Settler population up 7,000 after pullout

More than 9,000 Jewish settlers were evacuated from northern Samaria and the Gaza Strip last year, but the settler population grew by at least 7,000, according to figures presented by Peace Now's settlement watch project on Monday. "We estimate that the settler population increased to some 250,000 people," said project director Dror Etkes, compared with 243,000 at the end of 2004. "In the larger context, this growth of settlers in the West Bank was three times higher than in general Israeli society." Although no new outposts were established, existing communities were expanded and new roads were built, Etkes said. He cited the Za'atara bypass currently being built between Jerusalem and Nokdim in Samaria. "The Za'atara bypass is the largest infrastructure project the State of Israel is undertaking in the West Bank," he said. More than 80% of the tenders that the government issued for construction in in Judea and Samaria were issued after November 10, Etkes claimed. During the first two weeks of November, many ministers resigned from their positions ahead of the Knesset's dissolution and the upcoming elections. "They used the political circumstances to attract the minimum amount of criticism," he said. While the government lists 52 illegal outposts in Judea and Samaria, Etkes argued that he had discovered 102. He added that in 33 of them, construction of permanent structures was undertaken in 2005. The government had promised the US that it would remove all illegal outposts established after March 2001. Under Etkes' calculations, that would come to 52. "There are thousands of demolition orders pending in the West Bank, but the government is not carrying them out," he said. "This is a very political issue. We have taken it and dressed it in legal Jewish clothes. We use legal arguments and discourse to achieve political aims." After the violence in Amona, Etkes said, his organization is waiting to feel out the "new rules of the game." He added that the government's negligence and hesitation in dismantling settlements in the past had led to the "continued arrogance" of the settlers. "Times are changing and the settlers are under tremendous pressure," he said. "They are going through a theological-religious crises." The must come to terms with that crises, said Etkes, and the government must come to terms with how it will undertake evacuations in the future.