Over half a million Israeli settlers live in the West Bank, according to a Friday report by the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization representing local authorities in settlements.
The group said the milestone was crossed in October 2022, and that the exact population of Israelis stood at 502,678 across some 150 communities as of January, making up 5.2 percent of Israel’s total population of 9.565 million.
They estimated that as of May, the figure grew to some 506,000 residents.
The milestone comes as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, made up of right-wing and far-right parties that oppose Palestinian statehood, placed expanding settlements as a priority. Already the government has pledged to legalize wildcat outposts that have long enjoyed tacit government support and to ramp up approval and construction of settler homes around the West Bank.
According to Yesha, the settler population growth stood at a rate of 2.2% in 2022, with 10,755 Israelis moving to West Bank communities. It marked a slight drop from the 3.3% growth rate calculated in 2021.
The biggest communities in the territory were listed as Modiin Illit, Beitar Illit, Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel, which together have a population of 214,676.
Shlomo Ne’eman, head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, praised the news of the “flourishing and thriving” settlements, citing the success of Ariel University, tourist sites and investment in real estate as the driving forces behind the growth.
“Unfortunately, even after we’ve crossed half a million residents, we are still prisoners of a military administration that does not correspond to the reality on the ground,” Ne’eman said.
Settler’s affairs are overseen by the military and the Defense Ministry, as the territory is not officially a part of Israel.
“We will continue to work with the current government with the aim of adapting to changes and continuing the momentum of construction, development of roads and infrastructure in the area for the benefit of our beloved residents, and the benefit of the entire nation of Israel,” he added.
According to the findings, 36% of settlers are ultra-Orthodox, 36% are from the religious zionist community, and 28% are secular.
Settlements have flourished under most Israeli governments, including at the height of the peace process in the 1990s. Even the short-lived previous government, which included parties supporting Palestinian statehood along with those opposing it, continued to expand settlements.
The settler population report was released a week before Israel celebrates Jerusalem Day, which commemorates the anniversary of Israel taking control of the eastern parts of Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War.
The findings do not include East Jerusalem, which Israel captured along with the West Bank in the war.
Much of the international community considers Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, home to a further 200,000 people, to be settlements.
The Palestinians demand the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, currently ruled by the Hamas terror group, for a future state.
Much of the international community views the settlements as illegitimate and an obstacle to peace. The Palestinians see them as a land grab that undermines their chances to establish a viable, contiguous state.
Israel says the West Bank is disputed territory, rather than occupied, saying the latter terminology denies the Jewish people’s historical presence in the land. It argues that the fate of settlements should be part of negotiations to bring about an end to the conflict.
Peace efforts have been moribund for nearly 15 years, while Israel continued to establish facts on the ground with more settlement construction and as a Palestinian political rivalry and paralysis complicated peacemaking.
The settlers and their many supporters in government view the West Bank as the biblical and historical heartland of the Jewish people and are opposed to any partition.
Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank live under a two-tiered legal system that grants settlers special status and applies much of Israeli law to them, including the right to vote in Israeli elections and the ability to access certain public services. Palestinians live under Israeli military rule and they do not enjoy the legal rights and protections afforded to settlers.
The situation has led three well-known human rights groups to conclude that Israel is committing the international crime of apartheid by systematically denying Palestinians equal rights. Israel rejects those accusations as an attack on its very existence as a Jewish-majority state and points to the achievements of its Arab citizens to counter the argument.
The increasingly authoritarian and unpopular Palestinian Authority, established through agreements with Israel in the 1990s, administers parts of the West Bank, while the Hamas terror group controls Gaza.