The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Map: The spread of Israeli settlements in the West Bank

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There are rarely good years, but 2014 has been a particularly dreadful one in the annals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. U.S.-led talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators collapsed before the start of summer. Then, hostilities between Israeli forces and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas exploded into a full-blown war that led to more than 2,000 deaths and swaths of the Gaza Strip reduced to rubble.

That violence was followed by an escalation of attacks in Jerusalem, plunging the holy city into its deepest state of tensions since the Second Intifada.

Underlying a lot of the discord are the inescapable facts on the ground. A separate and viable Palestinian state looks like a distant mirage. The map below, illustrating the spread of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, is one reason why.

According to official Israeli government data released last week, the population of Israeli settlements in the West Bank grew almost 25 percent between 2009 -- when current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assumed office -- and the beginning of 2014. In that same time, the overall Israeli population grew just 9.6 percent. The map does not indicate another mushrooming settler population: the roughly 300,000 settlers now living in East Jerusalem, the intended capital of a future Palestinian state.

The settlements are deemed illegal by international law and have angered officials in the E.U. and the U.S., who see their expansion under Netanyahu's watch as a key impediment to the realization of a two-state solution. Recently, Netanyahu's defense minister Moshe Ya'alon controversially assured an audience at an Israeli settlement that the expansions would continue, particularly after President Obama left the White House.

Settlers are an increasingly important constituency and their votes will have an impact in upcoming Israeli elections in the new year. They are the main base of the political party of Naftali Bennett, who was a key ally in Netanyahu's right-wing government.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian leadership remains on its Pyrrhic quest for U.N. recognition and action on the stalled peace process in the Security Council. Palestinians in the West Bank continue their protests of  Israeli settlements and outposts that they say are deepening the dispossession of the Palestinian people.

These sometimes flare into violence, as was the case earlier this month when a march by Palestinian and Israeli activists waving flags and bearing olive tree saplings was intercepted by Israeli security forces. Following a brief altercation, a leading Palestinian minister died of what appeared to be a heart attack. The subsequent cycle of lamentation, bitterness and anger was tragically familiar to all.