JERUSALEM (AP) – As Israel basked in world admiration for pulling out of the Gaza Strip, new official figures released Friday showed the Jewish population of the West Bank is expanding rapidly, growing by more than 12,000 in the past year alone.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made no secret of his desire to expand large West Bank settlement blocs even while withdrawing from areas he says became untenable for Israel to hold.

According to Interior Ministry figures, the Jewish population of the West Bank in June stood at 246,000, an increase of 12,800, or 5 percent, in one year.

Interior Ministry spokesman Gilad Heiman said the Jewish population increase stemmed from new births and an influx of new residents, though he could not provide a breakdown.

That figure may be boosted further following the removal of some 8,500 people from 21 settlements in Gaza, many of whom found temporary shelter in West Bank settlements and may look there for permanent homes.

The settlement of Ariel turned over a student dormitory of its college campus to some 400 evicted residents of Netzarim in Gaza.

The pullback from the coastal strip and four West Bank settlements claimed its first fatality Friday when a 54-year-old woman died from self-inflicted burns during a protest earlier this month against the withdrawal.

Yelena Bosinova, a resident of the Kedumim settlement in the West Bank and an activist on settlement issues, was staging a protest on Aug. 17 at a roadblock near the southern Israeli town of Netivot when police suddenly noticed that she was on fire. Hospital officials said she died of her injuries on Friday.

Bosinova’s protest came on the first day of the emotionally charged forced evacuation of the settlements, which the military completed in eight days with surprisingly little violence.

The latest settlement figures drew criticism from Palestinian officials, who accused Israel of undermining peace prospects.

About 2.2 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem which Israel annexed after capturing the territories in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim all the West Bank and Gaza for a future Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital.

“These settlements and peace are two parallels that won’t meet,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “I hope their choice will be peace, not settlements.”

Many families are attracted to the settlements because is cheap and it is an easy commute to the large cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

The Maariv daily reported that nearly half the population growth was recorded in two large ultra-Orthodox settlements near Jerusalem, Betar Illit and Kiryat Sefer. Together they added about 5,500 in the past year.

Sharon, whose popularity has plummeted with his right-wing electoral base since the pullout, has said he has no intention to conduct more withdrawals in the West Bank to keep up the momentum and the international good will created by the Gaza pullout.

But Sharon also has faced calls to dismantle small 24 wildcat settlements erected on West Bank hilltops without government approval over the last two years as the next step, especially in view of the speed, efficiency and lack of bloodshed in removing the Gaza settlers.

Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon, said the Israeli public widely supports expansion of the five or six large settlement blocs in the West Bank. “We don’t regard the situation of those large settlement blocs … any differently from any other place in Israel,” he said.

Shoval said the U.S. has supported this view. In May 2004, President Bush said a final settlement with the Palestinians would have to recognize “new realities” on the ground, although he also has criticized the continued expansion of settlements.

Earlier this week, Israel said it had issued orders to confiscate private Palestinian property around Maaleh Adumim for construction of a massive separation barrier. The barrier will go around the settlement, about five miles east of Jerusalem, effectively annexing the land.

Israel plans to build about 3,500 housing units in the area between Maaleh Adumim and Jerusalem, although officials say the project is years away. The Palestinians say the construction would cut off access to Jerusalem and would split the West Bank.

Meanwhile, officials said the Palestinian Authority was looking for new names for evacuated Jewish settlements and was considering naming some of them after the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas founder who was killed by an Israeli missile in 2004. Samir Huleileh, the Palestinian Cabinet secretary-general, said the issue was discussed at the last Cabinet session but no decision has been made.

In Gaz City, Hamas held a large rally to celebrate the Israeli pullout. About 5,000 people, including men carrying anti-tank rockets, rifles and submachine guns.

The militant group repeated its calls to avenge an Israeli arrest raid that killed five Palestinians in the West Bank this week.

“The retaliation is coming and the blood of our beloved people will not go in vain. We will be happy to hear the news when our fighters succeed and get revenge for their blood,” said Nizar Rayan, a Hamas leader in the Jebalya refugee camp.

AP-ES-08-26-05 1715EDT

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