JERUSALEM — The pattern of Jewish settlements in the West Bank was designed to make a Palestinian state impossible, an Israeli human rights group charged in a report issued Monday.
The group, B'Tselem, said the Jewish state had "stolen" tens of thousands of acres of Palestinian land to establish the settlements--considered illegal under international law--for hundreds of thousands of Israelis.
"It's the intentional plan of the development and location of the settlements ... precisely to prevent any sort of viable Palestinian state," said Jessica Montell, the group's director.
B'Tselem released what it described as the most detailed maps yet showing how Arab towns and villages were hemmed in by Jewish settlements and a network of roads leading to them. The carved-up territories present a major roadblock in the search for a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace, the group said.
B'Tselem called on the Israeli government to vacate all settlements and compensate settlers who move to communities within Israel's borders.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who as housing minister in former Israeli governments was an architect of the country's settlement policy, recently dismissed such suggestions.
"No settlement will be evacuated," Sharon said. "Such an evacuation would only encourage terrorism and increase the pressure on us."
Settlers, who live on less than 2% of built-up areas, now control 42% of West Bank land, according to B'Tselem. Palestinians, on the other hand, are systematically denied building permits and prevented from expanding their communities, the group said.
"Israel has created in the occupied territories a regime of separation ... basing the rights of individuals on their nationality," B'Tselem stated. "This regime is the only one of its kind in the world, and is reminiscent of distasteful [ones] from the past, such as the apartheid regime in South Africa."
A spokesman for the Yesha Council, the main settlers group, poured scorn on B'Tselem's findings.
Noting that settlers controlled "only" 42% of West Bank land, the spokesman said: "It's regrettable that the settlement movement has not managed to implement the Zionist vision to settle between the sea and the Jordan at a much [faster] pace."
According to B'Tselem, about 247,000 settlers lived in the West Bank in 1993, the year Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed an interim peace accord. Their numbers grew to 380,000 by the end of 2001.
But their homes could be affected by future peace agreements. Palestinians, who view settlements as the embodiment of illegal occupation and obstacles to a future state, have in previous proposals called for their dismantlement. Palestinian militants say Jews who live in the settlements are fair targets.
Last week, the Bush administration called on Sharon to stop building settlements. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who is trying to get regional leaders to attend a Middle East peace conference this summer, said this month that "something will have to be done about the settlements that are there now."
Under Sharon, 34 new settlements have sprouted on hilltops in the West Bank, according to a recent report by Peace Now, which tracks settlements.
Leaders of Peace Now and B'Tselem have criticized the Israeli government for giving settlers attractive financial incentives--loans, tax breaks and government grants--to move to the West Bank.
But other settlers don't need any financial lure. They move to the West Bank because they believe it's part of the land that, according to their scriptures, God granted to the Jewish people. Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, then turned over parts of the territories to Palestinian control during the peace process of the last decade.
Yitzhak Pindrus, the mayor of Beitar Ilit, a settlement of 25,000 mainly Orthodox Jews near Jerusalem, said B'Tselem's report was flawed.
"B'Tselem should focus on human rights abuses, not real estate problems," Pindrus said. "There's no reason why Jews shouldn't live in Arab communities and enjoy good relations."