updated 12/30/2003 12:41:26 PM ET 2003-12-30T17:41:26

The population in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has grown by about 16 percent during the almost three years of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s rule, according to Interior Ministry statistics released Tuesday.

The statistics show the population is 236,381 people, up from 203,067 at the end of 2000, three months before Sharon took office.

The Israeli prime minister has traditionally been a champion of settlements established in the areas Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

The 'road map' peace plan
But in June, Sharon committed to implement the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, which calls for a freeze in settlement activity.

Searching for peace

The road map outlines the establishment of an independent Palestinian state by 2005. Some 3.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza.

The road map also calls on the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups — a move they have so far failed to take.

In a recent policy speech, Sharon said he may dismantle some outlying settlements as part of a unilateral “disengagement” from the Palestinians if progress is not made on the road map.

Population in outlying settlements grew faster
The statistics released Tuesday show that the population in the outlying settlements — which tend to attract Israelis motivated more by ideology than economic benefits — grew faster than those in areas closer to the line with Israel.

For example, the Kfar Darom settlement in the Gaza Strip grew by 52 percent during the past three years. Nearby Netzarim grew by 24 percent. The settlement enclaves in the West Bank city of Hebron, where 130,000 Palestinians live, grew by almost 15 percent to 554 residents, the Interior Ministry said.

In contrast, the settlement of Maaleh Adumim, located just a few minutes drive outside of Jerusalem, grew by nine percent.

An official in Sharon’s office said the prime minister remains committed to the road map. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sharon has not built new settlements, allowing only “natural growth” in existing settlements.

The overall annual growth rate for the nation is 1.8 percent, Israel’s Army Radio said.

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