JERUSALEM — Israel’s settler population in the West Bank increased by 2 percent in the first half of the year, a settlement advocacy group announced Tuesday, signaling robust growth in the settlements even while Israel was conducting peace talks with the Palestinians.
The new figures drew criticism from the Palestinians, who seek the West Bank as part of a future state. The Palestinians and most of the international community consider Israeli construction there to be illegal or illegitimate.
Gaza militants, meanwhile, fired a mortar round at southern Israel for the first time since a 50-day war between Israel and Hamas ended with a cease-fire last month. The attack did not wound anyone or cause damage, the military said. It was not clear whether Israel would respond.
A Hamas security official said the group was not behind the attack.
The Yesha Council, the official umbrella group representing the more than 100 Jewish settlements in the West Bank, said the settler population grew to 382,031 as of June 30, up 2 percent from 374,469 on Dec. 31. The projected 4 percent annual growth rate would be more than double Israel’s nationwide growth rate, according to official figures.
“It is clear that it is a thriving community that is here to stay,” said Dani Dayan, the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha Council.
Dayan said the increase was driven by a combination of natural population growth and an influx of Israelis drawn to the West Bank for ideological, lifestyle or economic reasons. Housing in the settlements is generally cheaper than inside Israel.
Yariv Oppenheimer, director of the anti-settlement group Peace Now, said the rapid growth rate proves not just that settlements are experiencing natural growth but that the government is “exporting new settlers from Israel.”
Settlement construction remained a source of tension in the latest round of U.S.-mediated peace talks, which broke down in April.
Israel refused Palestinian demands to stop settlement construction, prompting Palestinian accusations that Israel was not serious about peace. U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry also complained that the construction raised questions about Israel’s commitment to peace.
Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek all three areas for their state. After two decades of failed on-again, off-again negotiations, the Palestinians plan to ask the U.N. Security Council this month to recognize a Palestinian state in these areas and give Israel a deadline to withdraw.