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Israel approves more settlements

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Israel OKs More West Bank Settlement Homes
Israel Approves More West Bank Settlement Homes, Escalating Crisis With Palestinians

The Associated Press

JERUSALEM Aug. 23, 2004 Israel announced plans Monday to build hundreds of new housing units in the West Bank, following an apparent U.S. policy shift on settlements that the Palestinians warned "will destroy the peace process."
The United States has signaled recently that it will allow Israel to expand existing settlements in the West Bank, while remaining opposed to construction in undeveloped areas.

Previously, Washington has objected to all settlement construction, in line with the internationally backed "road map" peace plan.

The road map, which aims for an independent Palestinian state by 2005, has been stalled since it was signed by Israel and the Palestinians last year.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who refuses to talk to the Palestinians, has distanced himself from the road map.

Instead, he plans a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip next year, uprooting 21 Jewish settlements, as well as four isolated settlements in the West Bank.

Sharon has made clear, however, that he wants to beef up major Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank as part of his "disengagement" plan.

The vast majority of Israel's more than 230,000 settlers live in the West Bank, spread out among more than 2 million Palestinians.

The Palestinians object to all settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war and the Palestinians want for a future state.

"There is hardly a week that passes by without a declaration from the Israeli government of tendering hundreds and thousands of housing units for settlements," said Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat. "If this land grab continues, the question that is asked is where will the Palestinian state be established?"

Under the Israeli plans unveiled Monday, the country could build more than 500 housing units in existing settlements.

The Israel Lands Authority responsible for some West Bank lands plans to lease land to contractors who will build 300 units in Har Adar and Har Gilo next year, spokeswoman Ortal Tzabar said Monday.

She noted that the projects still need Defense Ministry approval. The two communities have become upper class suburbs of Jerusalem, and final approval is expected.

The Defense Ministry, meanwhile, has approved construction of an additional 232 units in the Adam and Emmanuel, settlements deeper inside the West Bank. But the Housing Ministry has decided not to go ahead with the projects at this time, said Kobi Bleich, a spokesman for the Housing Ministry.

Last week, Israel announced plans to build 1,000 additional units in existing West Bank settlements. U.S. officials withheld judgment on the plans.

Israeli officials have said the latest construction was approved through an understanding with the United States.

U.S. officials in Israel have told The Associated Press that though there has been no formal decision, the American government is not objecting to construction in the main West Bank settlement blocs, as long as the settlements themselves are not expanded. They said an internal U.S. debate over the settlement issue is continuing.

In Washington, administration officials insisted they are not signaling any major change in policy. "We continue to work with the Israelis on progress toward the settlement freeze," Jim Wilkinson, deputy national security adviser, said Sunday.

President Bush, who strongly supports the Gaza pullout plan, expressed an initial shift in U.S. settlement policy in April when he said that a final peace deal would have to take into account large West Bank settlements.

The latest construction projects appear to have political overtones. Sharon is under pressure from critics in his Likud Party over the planned Gaza pullout and is eager to show his hard-line credentials.

On Sunday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia refused to accept the possibility that U.S. policy has changed.

"I can't believe that America is now saying that settlement expansion is all right," he said. "This will destroy the peace process."

The Palestinians called on the White House to clarify its position.

The U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said an American team will visit Israel next month to discuss where construction would be permitted.

In a related development, Sharon's office announced Sunday that the government bureau providing compensation to settlers who are uprooted by the disengagement plans is officially in operation.

Yaakov Galanti, a spokesman for the Israeli Justice Ministry, said compensation legislation is expected to be completed in September, months behind schedule. Sharon had hoped to wrap up the legislation over the summer. The law will then need to be approved by the Cabinet and parliament.

In other developments, Yasser Arafat held a long-anticipated meeting with Mohammed Dahlan, a Gaza strongman who has emerged as an outspoken critic of the Palestinian leader.

The meeting, which Arafat has repeatedly delayed, follows a wave of unrest in the Gaza Strip linked to growing dissatisfaction with the Palestinian Authority. Critics accuse Arafat of resisting efforts to clean p corruption in the government.

In new violence, a 20-year-old Palestinian man was killed in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Palestinians said the man was hit in the chest by random Israeli machine-gun fire. The army said it had fired at abandoned buildings used by militants to fire at Israeli soldiers but could not confirm hitting anyone.

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