Jewish settlements now house more than 450,000 settlers

Construction of settlements in the West Bank has continued under every Israeli government since the occupation began in 1967. Palestinians want them all dismantled but Israel has only said it will put a freeze on building any more settlements.

David Chater, Al Jazeera's correspondent, reports on one of the most contentious issues on the Annapolis conference's agenda.

Several Jewish settlements Arab East Jerusalem, notably Maale Adumim, have already cut across land which could form an essential part of any Palestinian state.

The population of Jewish settlers now numbers more than 450,000, including those of East Jerusalem, in the middle of 2.5 million Palestinians.

The World Court says that the settlements are illegal.

If the current growth rate continues the settler population will have doubled in the next 12 years.

Such growth brings other issues such as water distribution. Water is increasingly a scarce resource in the Middle East and is a core issue for any future peace accord.

Expansion freeze?

The Israeli government is set to announce a freeze on all expansion, even for so-called natural growth, at the Middle East conference in Annapolis.

The Israelis have made promises before to freeze all settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, but these promises have been broken.

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This time for Annapolis they are characterising it as a concession. However, it is not. It is an obligation under the first stage of the Middle East peace road map.

Kofi Annan, the UN's former secretary-general, said the consolidation of the Israeli settlements on occupied land was the main reason for the mistrust and fustration felt by ordinary Palestinians, which often find their outlet in violence.

Manuel Bessler, the UN office for co-ordination of humanitarian affairs, said: "It is important to put a stop in place. And I hope very much that we will have this freeze and the Israelis will live up to their promises."

God-given right

The Jewish settlers, however, see the West Bank as their god-given birthright.

They do not believe in the road map or the two-state solution as the way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Dani Dayan, the head of the settler's council, said: "It is equating the struggle against the terrorists which wants to explode in a crowded coffee shop or discotheque in Tel Aviv killing hundreds or dozens of people, with my daughter for instance who wants to build her home next to mine.

"That is an obscene comparison, an obscene equation."

The Jewish settlers think the Annapolis meeting will solve nothing.

They say they will gather support and fight any promises made by the Israeli government.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies