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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

West Bank Settlers Seek Growth Boom

TEL AVIV, Israel -- Jewish settlers in the West Bank, encouraged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's pro-settlement stance, said they want to triple their numbers in the next four years -- building eight new settlements and expanding existing ones.

Opponents angrily responded Sunday that increasing the Jewish population in disputed areas could spell the death of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Palestinians view the settlements as a key impediment to resolving their territorial dispute with Israel, complicating any Israeli disengagement from territories the Jewish state captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said Monday he would take a wait-and-see attitude toward Netanyahu's new hardline government.

Arafat, returning to the Gaza Strip from a trip to Cairo, said he and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had discussed how to push the Middle East peace process forward "in spite of what we are facing from the other side."

Asked if the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was in crisis, Arafat replied: "We have to wait and see how the other side is going to implement what we had agreed upon and what we had signed."

Settler leader Pinchas Wallerstein said Sunday he would ask Netanyahu to cancel the freeze on building new settlements imposed by the previous Labor Party government.

Wallerstein said he wants the settler population grow by at least 300,000 over the next four years -- a figure in line with estimates mentioned by some officials of Netanyahu's Likud Party.

A detailed plan is being drawn up by the Amana movement, which represents thousands of settlers.

"I am sure we will get the full support of the prime minister," said Wallerstein, adding he did not know when the proposals would be submitted.

Netanyahu, who appears committed to blocking the Palestinians' goal of turning their limited autonomy into full statehood, has been evasive about settlements since his election victory in May.

Netanyahu says he supports expanding the Jewish presence in the disputed areas but has not specified whether he would allow new settlements or the enlargement of old ones. He reacted coolly Sunday to the settlers' plans.

"If some proposal or other is presented to me I will of course consider it, but you must remember that the government's policy is determined by the government and not by any outside group," he told a news conference on returning from a six-day trip to the United States.

In addition to 140,000 settlers -- about 5,000 in Gaza, the rest in the West Bank -- 160,000 Israelis live in neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in 1967 and later annexed.

Further expanding the number of Israelis living in disputed territory, critics warn, could kill a peace process already unbalanced by Netanyahu's surprise election victory over peacemaker Shimon Peres.

"Settlements and peace are two opposing lines, they do not meet," said Palestinian Finance Minister Mohammed Nashashibi, a top Arafat aide.

"If the plan is carried out, it will stop the peace process," agreed Labor Party lawmaker Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. As housing minister in the former government, Ben-Eliezer was responsible for the settlements.

Spurred by U.S. opposition, Labor in 1992 largely froze construction of new settlements, but allowed some expansion of existing communities, particularly around Jerusalem. The settler population has grown by nearly 50 percent since then, in part from high birthrates among religious Jews. Most settlers live in bedroom communities relatively close to the border between the West Bank and Israel proper.

Yossi Beilin, a key negotiator under the previous government, has argued that most settlers can be incorporated into Israel through only limited changes to the West Bank border. The rest, he has suggested, then could move or live in a Palestinian state.

Such a scenario could be scuttled by a new settlement drive placing thousands more Jews inside disputed territory.

Israel radio said Amana would propose establishing eight new settlements on 2,000 hectares of land south of Jerusalem.