Gaza, ALRAY - Israel's ultra-nationalist construction minister – whose actions have been blamed by some US officials for torpedoing the peace process – has predicted an explosion of settlement activity in the next five years on the occupied West Bank.
Uri Ariel, a member of the hardline Jewish Home party, which is part of Binyamin Netanyahu's rightwing coalition government, predicted in a radio interview on Friday that the number of settlers could grow by 50% by 2019.
The US special envoy to the Middle East peace talks, Martin Indyk, recently cited "rampant settlement activity" as a key factor in the breakdown of the talks last month.
During the nine months of failed peacemaking, Ariel published tenders for settlement construction that were cited by the US as having contributed to the impasse by convincing the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, that Netanyahu was not serious about reaching an accord.
Most controversially, Ariel was accused of re-announcing an old tender to build 700 more housing units in East Jerusalem in the midst of frantic last-minute efforts to salvage the talks, condemning them to collapse.
Palestinians want the West Bank as part of their future state and blamed settlement expansions for the breakdown last month of US-mediated peace talks with Israel – a position supported in part by Washington, but rejected by the Israelis.
Ariel told the Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM that negotiations on Palestinian statehood were in their "dying throes".
"I think that in five years there will be 550,000 or 600,000 Jews in Judea and Samaria, rather than 400,000 [now]," he said, using a biblical term for the West Bank.
About 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas which, along with the Gaza Strip, Israel captured in a 1967 war.
Jewish Home opposes Palestinian statehood altogether, raising speculation in Israel that Netanyahu, in the unlikely event of a diplomatic breakthrough, would eject the party from his coalition.
On Friday thousands of Palestinians turned out to bury two youths shot and killed by Israeli soldiers a day earlier during protests to commemorate the 66th anniversary of the Nakba, or "catastrophe" of the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians in 1948.
The two youths were shot in the chest while protesting near Israel's Ofer prison, near the central West Bank city of Ramallah.