The increase comes despite peace moves requiring Israel to halt construction in the settlements.

 

The interior ministry said 5415 Israelis had moved to the new settlements since January, with the ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit seeing the largest jump of more than 1000 newcomers.

 

Around 5000 settlers moved to the settlements - described as illegal outposts to differentiate them from other settlements authorised by Israel law but banned by international law - in the second half of 2001 and in first half of 2002, while 7200 moved there in the second half of 2002.

 

Cheap housing draw

   

Betzalel Kahn, a Beitar Illit spokesman, said the draw for the ultra-Orthodox community was the cheap housing close to Jerusalem and not a bid to strengthen Israel's hold on the West Bank.

   

Other illegal West Bank settlements that saw hikes in their population were the ultra-Orthodox Modein Ilit and Maaleh Adumim, the Interior Ministry said.

 

The total settler population now stands at 231,443 people.

   

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has pledged to uproot a few hilltop outposts and indicated he would consider dismantling some established "illegal settlements" in return for peace.

 

Independent Palestinian state

   

Palestinians are seeking an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

 

US-backed peace plans call on Israel to dismantle unauthorised settler outposts and stop expansion of established settlements there.

Architect of settlements

The settlement project began after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, when Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza territories from Jordan and Egypt.

Sharon's settlement project

The activity during the 1970s was largely led by Mr Sharon who was then a government minister.

Since the 1993 Oslo peace accords, the number of Jewish settlers has increased by 70%, not counting the 200,000 Israelis living in 11 settler quarters in East Jerusalem.

A number of "illegal outposts" have been built very close to refugee camps, where Palestinians live cheek-by-jowl in squalor and under constant threat of abuse and violence from the heavily armed settlers.