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Israeli to build 1001 new houses in west bank

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Israel to build 1,001 new housing units in West Bank

JERUSALEM (AP) Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has approved bids for construction of 1,000 homes in Jewish West Bank settlements after freezing them earlier this month, amid growing friction with the United States over continued settlement expansion.
The planned construction violates the internationally backed "road map" plan, accepted by Israel, which calls for a construction freeze. "Israel has accepted the road map and all its stipulations and we expect it to abide by them," U.S. Embassy spokesman Paul Patin said Tuesday.

However, Israeli government officials insisted the bids had tacit U.S. blessing. "It (the new construction) is within the guidelines of the government and the agreements with the Americans," said a senior Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat urged President Bush to intervene immediately, and pressure the Israelis to live up to their obligations. "I think this (the construction) is destroying the road map," Erekat said.

The homes are to be built in six West Bank settlements Karnei Shomron, Ariel, Geva Benyamin, Maaleh Adumim, Kiryat Arba and Beitar Illit. Sharon has said he wants to annex large West Bank settlement blocs to Israel as part of a future peace deal.

In April, Bush said it was "unrealistic" to expect Israel to withdraw from all the West Bank and dismantle large population centers in a peace agreement with the Palestinians. This was seen by Israel as a green light to continue expanding large settlement blocs.

Housing Ministry spokesman Kobi Bleich said that the six settlements earmarked for expansion are within "the Israeli consensus," meaning they are among those Israel plans to keep in any scenario. "All the relevant authorizations have been received," Bleich said of the construction bids.

Earlier this month, Sharon temporarily suspended the bids, asking that construction plans be checked. At the time, Sharon's decision was seen, in part, as an attempt to defuse growing tensions with the United States over continued settlement expansion.

Sharon's decision to issue the bids came a day before what was expected to be a stormy convention of his hardline Likud Party. Many party members are opposed to Sharon's efforts to bring the moderate Labor Party into his fragile government, and are to vote on the issue Wednesday.

Sharon could easily lose the vote, and the construction bids could help Sharon win over some of the hard-liners who fear an alliance with Labor would prompt the government to make too many concessions to the Palestinians.

The Israeli government adopted the road map in May 2003, but it never got off the ground, as both Israel and the Palestinians failed to fulfill their obligations.

In a related development, U.S. officials confirmed that the United States is sending a delegation to inspect the status of Israel's unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank, and to push for the dismantling of the enclaves an Israeli commitment under the road map.

The United States has shown increasing impatience with Israel's slow pace in removing the outposts, which Washington and the Palestinians criticize as seeds of future settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians. Some of the enclaves consist only of a few mobile homes, while others have permanent buildings and paved roads and have been hooked up to the electricity grid.

Patin said no date had been set for the American delegation's arrival.

Peace Now, an Israeli group opposed to Jewish settlements, says the road map requires Israel to dismantle 53 settlement outposts roughly twice the number it acknowledged in a list presented to American officials in June.

Israel has dismantled a few outposts, most of them uninhabited. Peace Now estimates that about 1,500 settlers live in the enclaves.

In Wednesday's Likud convention, 3,000 members of the party's Central Committee will be asked to approve Sharon's efforts to include Labor. Likud hard-liners fear a Likud-Labor alliance would enable Sharon to push ahead with his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements by 2005.

Sharon has warned he may have to call early elections if he is unable to expand his government. He lost his parliamentary majority earlier this summer, with hardliners defecting over the Gaza withdrawal plan.

In new violence Tuesday, two Palestinian militants affiliated with an offshoot of Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization were killed near a Jewish settlement in the southern Gaza Strip, a spokesman for the group said.

The spokesman for the Ahmed Abu Rish Brigades said the men were killed by Israeli forces while on "a holy mission" near the settlement of Atzmona. Israeli military sources said soldiers had fired at two men preparing to place an explosive device just outside the settlement.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press.

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