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The settler population in the West Bank grew by nearly 6 percent in 2006, more than quadruple the rate of increase a year earlier, government figures showed on Tuesday.

The Interior Ministry statistics did not indicate how many of the new arrivals were children born in the 126 settlements Israel has built in the West Bank.

According to the Interior Ministry, there were 268,379 Israelis living in the West Bank at the end of 2006, compared with 253,748 in 2005, a 5.8 percent increase.

As in past years, the greatest instances of growth were in the religious settlements of Upper Modi'in and Upper Beitar. Some 4,000 residents moved to Upper Modi'in in 2006, making it Israel's biggest settlement in the West Bank, with a population of 35,000. Upper Beitar gained about 2,000 new residents in 2006.

Ma'aleh Adumim was considered the largest settlement in 2005, with a population of some 33,000 residents.

The settler population grew by 1.4 percent in 2005. The figures did not include Israelis living in Arab East Jerusalem.

Some 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank. The World Court has ruled that settlements built on land Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War are illegal.

Israel drew protests from the United States and European Union last month by announcing it would turn a former army base in the West Bank called Maskiot into a settlement to house 60 families evacuated more than a year ago from the Gaza Strip.

The vast majority of Gaza's 8,500 settlers chose to establish new homes in southern Israel, the Yesha Council of Settlements said.