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Jewish Settler Population Grows Despite Peace Moves (REUTERS) By Maia Ridberg JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 07/24/03 01:31 PM ET) Source: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml;jsessionid=AKWKZT1C45E40CRBAEZSFEY?type=worldNews&storyID=3153919
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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The Jewish settler population in the Palestinian Territories grew by more than 5,000 in the first half of 2003, despite U.S.-backed peace moves requiring an end to construction at settlements, Israel said on Thursday.
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The figures could complicate Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas´s talks on Friday in Washington, where he will urge President Bush to increase pressure on Israel to implement peace moves and release Palestinian prisoners.
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Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr said the continued growth of Israeli settlements undermined peace efforts and added: "It means there is no hope for the birth of the Palestinian state."
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The Palestinians began an uprising in September 2000 for an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories which were occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
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Under a "road map" to peace which Bush will try to push forward at Friday´s talks with Abbas and then at talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Tuesday, a Palestinian state is to be established alongside Israel in 2005.
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Israel is required under the plan to abandon unauthorized settler outposts -- mainly small clusters of homes or caravans on West Bank hilltops -- and stop construction work at the more established settlements.
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According to Israel´s Interior Ministry, some 5,000 people moved to the settlements in the second half of 2001 and in the first half of 2002, and about 7,200 in the second half of 2002.
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It said 5,415 Israelis had moved to settlements since January this year and that 231,443 people were now living in the settlements, which the international community regards as illegal under international law. Israel disputes this.
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Sharon says he will uproot the unauthorized outposts and has indicated he will also consider dismantling established settlements. The Palestinians are wary of his pledges because he was long a vocal proponent of settlements and has dismantled few outposts.
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Abbas is expected to urge Bush to increase pressure on Israel to release thousands of Palestinian prisoners.
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Sharon has promised to free several hundred but has set no date for the release. A ministerial committee on Wednesday delayed a decision on whether to free militants from groups involved in suicide attacks that have killed scores of Israelis.
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The prisoner issue is vital to the standing of Abbas among Palestinians and to the U.S.-backed Middle East peace plan.
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An estimated 6,000 Palestinians are in Israeli jails, and militants have made their release a prime condition of a three-month cease-fire they declared on June 29.
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Amr said on Wednesday lawmakers were pressing for a confidence vote in his cabinet if he returns empty-handed.
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Militant groups have cranked up the pressure on Abbas to win prisoner releases with nearly daily protests in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in recent days.
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About 4,000 supporters of the Islamic militant group Hamas protested at a soccer stadium in northern Gaza on Thursday, marking one year since Israel assassinated Hamas military leader Saleh Shehadeh in an air strike.
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Hamas leaders said the protest was also a message that Hamas expects Abbas to secure prisoner releases. (© Reuters 2003 07/24/03)
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