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US questions settlement expansion { August 4 2004 }

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US questions settlement expansion
By Ken Ellingwood
August 4, 2004

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has approved construction of 600 homes in Maale Adumim, a large settlement outside Jerusalem, in a move that raises questions about peace negotiations.

A Defence Ministry spokeswoman has confirmed a report in the Maariv newspaper that Israel planned to expand Maale Adumim, a city of nearly 30,000 that is the largest settlement in the West Bank.

Maariv reported that the Government gave the construction order two months ago but did not announce it to avoid international criticism.

Under the US-backed diplomatic initiative known as the road map, Israel is to freeze settlement activity and remove illegal outposts erected since March 2001. The Bush Administration has expressed frustration over the lack of progress in removing the outposts.

A US official said the move to build homes at Maale Adumim "appears to be incompatible with" the diplomatic initiative.

On Monday Washington delivered an apparent rare rebuke to Israel when it voiced concern about thousands of Palestinians who are stranded because the Jewish state closed the border crossing between Egypt and Gaza.

Although Washington avoided blaming any side and urged Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, as well as Israel, to find a way to allow Gazans to return home, it emphasised the Palestinians' suffering and suggested the closure could hurt the peace process.

Israel closed the Rafah border crossing on July 18, citing security reasons and saying it had information about a possible attack near the crossing.

Gaza's air and sea routes have been cut during the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000, making the crossing with Egypt the only entrance and exit point for most Gazans into the sliver of land on the Mediterranean coast.

Israel regularly closes Rafah because of security alerts or army operations in the area, a stronghold of Islamic militants. But such closures rarely last more than a few days.

The unusually long closure has drawn anger from Palestinians and criticism from rights groups, which say hygiene is poor at the crowded crossing. One woman gave birth while waiting.

"We are deeply concerned about it. It is a humanitarian problem that disturbs us," US State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said. "The burden and hardship being imposed upon Palestinians is problematic."

Peace activists said expanding Maale Adumim could harm future efforts at a negotiated solution with the Palestinians by further dividing the northern and southern portions of the West Bank.

"It's another bullet in the cadaver of the road map," said Dror Etkes, who monitors settlement construction for the Israeli group Peace Now.

Meanwhile on Monday, about 1500 supporters of Yasser Arafat rallied in the West Bank city of Ramallah to show support for the Palestinian President, while his Prime Minister outlined a police reform plan to answer growing lawlessness and internal discontent.

Mr Arafat's dominant Fatah movement has been roiled by complaints from its own ranks over corruption and misrule in the Palestinian Authority.

Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie said the cabinet had approved a plan to improve law enforcement by improving lines of command and making it clear that no one is above the law.

The move comes after members of a pro-Arafat militia fired shots at a meeting where Fatah activists were discussing internal reforms. Yesterday Palestinian gunmen in Gaza City entered a hospital to kill two men who had been imprisoned for collaborating with Israel.

- agencies

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