JERUSALEM - Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was elected more than three years ago, the Jewish population in the West Bank has ballooned by 18 percent, drawing tens of thousands of Israelis to the territory the Palestinians claim as the heartland of a future state, according to figures obtained by The Associated Press.
The rate of growth - nearly twice that of Israel proper - has deep implications for an already moribund peace process. The issue is at the heart of a three-year-old impasse in Mideast peace efforts, and critics say each new settlement home makes it ever tougher for the Israelis and the Palestinians to reach the territorial compromise that would be needed for any agreement.
The settler numbers are "consistent with Netanyahu's commitment to maintain the Israeli control over the Palestinian territories and consistent with his lack of commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution," Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib said.
Israel, which has a population of almost 8 million, has long sought to cement its hold on the West Bank, captured from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war, by having masses of Jewish settlers live there. For years, the two sides had discussed the possibility that in a final peace deal, Israel would maintain some settlements while uprooting others. Israel has shown more than once - especially when it removed all of its 8,500 settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005 - that it can tear down settlements when it thinks the price is worth it.
But the numbers in the West Bank are much higher, more than tripling since the first interim peace accord of 1993 to more than 342,000 at the end of 2011, according to Interior Ministry figures.
That includes a rise of more than 50,000, or 18 percent, since Netanyahu was elected in early 2009, driven by a high settler birth rate and the migration of Israelis to the West Bank.
The numbers do not include some 200,000 Jews living in areas of Jerusalem that Israel captured in the 1967 war and immediately annexed. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as their capital, and along with the international community, consider these enclaves to be settlements. Israel says east Jerusalem is part of Israel because of the annexation.
With nearly 10 percent of Israel's 6 million Jews now living on occupied territory, the growing settler population has in effect erased the pre-1967 frontier, said pro-settler Jerusalem Post commentator Michael Freund.
"Jewish life in Judea, Samaria and eastern Jerusalem is growing and flourishing, and there is no human power on Earth that is going to uproot or move hundreds of thousands of Jews from places such as Ariel, Tekoa or Hebron," he wrote in a recent column, referring to the West Bank by its biblical name and naming three settlements there.
The Palestinian growth rate in the West Bank, in the meantime, was far lower: In 2011, the population grew 2.8 percent to 2.19 million, from 2.13 million a year earlier, according to the Palestinian bureau of statistics.
Palestinians, who hope to create a state in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, consider the huge growth in the settlement population a violation of peace accords.