Sat, Aug 02, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Israel to expand Gaza settlement

CONSTRUCTION FREEZE The government said it was going to build 22 housing units in a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip even though it had promised not to

AP , JERUSALEM

Foreign activists from the International Solidarity Movement and Palestinians spray graffiti as they participate in a demonstration against the wall, erected by Israel in the northern West Bank town of Qalgilya, on Thursday. Protesters threw balloons filled with green, black, red and white paint -- the colors of the Palestinian flag -- at the wall and hoisted a banner calling the fence an apartheid wall.

PHOTO: AP

Israel announced Thursday it would build new housing in a Gaza Strip settlement, angering Palestinians and raising questions about implementation of the US-backed "road map" plan, after Israel's prime minister returned from a White House summit and top officials from the two sides had inconclusive talks about the next peace moves.

Separate summits in Washington over the past week between US President George W. Bush and the Israeli and Palestinian premiers served to bring out the differences among the sides over the peace plan, and since then, the disagreements have spawned new troubles for the blueprint.

Speaking Thursday, hours after returning from Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that implementation of the first phase of the plan, including a "total cessation of violence," is beginning.

On June 29, Palestinian groups called a limited ceasefire, greatly reducing violence, but Israel is insisting that the violent groups be disarmed in accordance with the road map language. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who met Bush last week, is resisting such a crackdown, fearing a civil war.

Sharon said subsequent phases could not start until all the elements of previous stages are implemented, rejecting a Palestinian demand for a time line for carrying out the plan. The road map has both performance and schedule elements.

Other disagreements linked to peacemaking flared up Thursday, including Jewish settlements, Palestinian prisoners, Israeli control of Palestinian towns and Israel's planned barrier along the West Bank.

Israel opened bidding for construction of 22 new housing units in the largest Jewish settlement in Gaza, Neve Dekalim, angering Palestinians and leading to charges that the move counters the "road map" requirements.

About 2,400 Israelis live in Neve Dekalim, which anchors a bloc of settlements near the Gaza coast.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, criticized the tender. "This is a very dangerous step taken by the Israeli government," he said.

In a statement, the Israeli Defense Ministry said the 22 units were in the settlement's original plan, and their construction would not violate the road map because they reflect natural growth of the settlement.

However, the peace plan states, "Israel also freezes all settlement activity, consistent with the Mitchell report," an international study from May 2001. That report says that Israel "should freeze all settlement activity, including the `natural growth' of existing settlements."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. officials were talking to Israel about implementing the plan. "A freeze is a freeze," he said.

Palestinians demand that all the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza be removed as part of creation of a Palestinian state. The ``road map'' leads through three stages to a Palestinian state in 2005, but beyond the freeze and removal of unauthorized Israeli outposts, it leaves the fate of the settlements for final-status negotiations.

Since the truce declaration, Palestinians have been demanding that Israel release thousands of prisoners. Israel is offering to free a few hundred.

On Thursday, tempers boiled over at a prison in the southern Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon. About 400 Palestinian inmates rioted, the prison service said.

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