Illegal West Bank settlers celebrate Trump administration for allowing surge in growth

'It's just simply opened up,' said the leader of a settler group in the occupied territory

FILE - In this June 21, 2017 file photo, diggers break ground for a new settlement near the Israeli settlement of Shilo, in the West Bank. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Thursday, May 24, 2018, that he will seek approval next week to fast-track construction of 2,500 new West Bank settlement homes this year and advance 1,400 more units that are currently in the planning stage. Senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi condemned Lieberman’s announcement as “Israeli colonialism, expansionism and lawlessness” and called on the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, to launch an investigation. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic, File)
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A settler group that represents the community that resides in the illegal Israeli settlement enterprise in the occupied territories of West Bank and East Jerusalem have lauded the Trump administration for allow their numbers to surge at a more rapid rate than expected.

In the first two years of his presidency, US President Donald Trump has refused to condemn Israel for building settlements on territories earmarked by Palestinians for any future sovereign state.

"It's just simply opened up. There's no longer this cloud looming over it," Baruch Gordon, director of West Bank Jewish Population Stats, told the Associated Press in an interview that his administration had created a friendly atmosphere for the growth of the settler population. His organisation conducts an annual study of settler population figures retrieved from the Israeli Interior Ministry.

Around 400,000 settlers live in the West Bank and at least 150,000 more live in East Jerusalem, protected by thousands of Israeli soldiers who maintain a crippling occupation of Palestinian territories.

The report is sponsored by "Bet El Institutions," a prominent settler organization that has ties to some of President Donald Trump's closest Middle East advisers.

The latest data shows the population in Jewish settlements of the West Bank grew to 449,508 as of January 1, up 3.3 percent from 435,159 people a year earlier. That was a higher rate than Israel's overall population, which grew 1.9 percent last year to 8.907 million people.

This growth is projected to continue as Israel has approved an increasing amount of settlement starts and construction projects that will take several years to complete, according to anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now.

"Since the change of the US administration, the atmosphere for construction permits has become much easier. They're being given with greater ease," he said.

"I think possibly the next report and certainly in the ones after that, I think we'll start to see a huge surge in the numbers here," he added.

The Palestinians have cut all ties with Washington, saying that its policies have allowed Israel to deal blow after blow to their hopes of statehood. They have called increased settlement building a direct result of US policy under Mr Trump.

The Israeli right is largely opposed to any change to Israeli policy, particularly the withdrawal of the settlers and military from the West Bank.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main rival Benny Gantz  in an April election has raised the possibility of pulling back from the occupied West Bank, in remarks published Wednesday that drew right-wing criticism.

Benny Gantz, the former armed forces chief of staff, spoke positively of Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip in 2005, in his first interview since launching his election campaign last week.

The Gaza withdrawal had been "approved by the Israeli government and implemented by the army and settlers in a painful but good way", he told the Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

"(One should) learn from it and apply it to other places," he said.

Mr Trump's Middle East team, which is led by members with close ties to the settlements, has said it is close to releasing a long-awaited peace plan. Palestinian officials have said they will not agree to any deal proposed by the Trump administration.