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Jewish settlements expand despite promises { July 23 2004 }

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Jewish settlements expand despite promises, opposition
- John Ward Anderson, Washington Post
Friday, July 23, 2004

Jerusalem -- Jewish settlements and illegal outposts are growing at a rapid pace in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, despite Israeli pledges to the United States to stop the expansion of such communities and dismantle some of them, according to Israeli government statistics and a report released Thursday by settlement opponents.

The growth is particularly pronounced in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has proposed removing all Jewish settlers and the Israeli soldiers who protect them, by the end of 2005. Sharon's disengagement plan is on hold as he tries to build support for it in his Cabinet and Israel's parliament.

According to a new report by the anti-settlement group Peace Now, Israeli settlements and outposts grew by more than 100 acres -- at least 60 acres added in the West Bank and about 43 acres in the Gaza Strip -- in the first six months of this year. At least 3,100 apartments are being built in the settlements, "in addition to the preparation of areas for construction of thousands of further housing" units, the report says.

The study included more than 50 satellite photographs and other pictures showing construction work and expansion at settlements and outposts between February and July. Before-and-after satellite images show the clearing of land, the construction of roads and the addition of greenhouses, trailers and homes.

The pictures "show without a shadow of doubt how these illegal outposts were expanded," Ephraim Sneh, a member of parliament from the main opposition Labor Party, said in a recent interview. "It shows that the government not only isn't dismantling settlements, it's expanding them with government funds."

Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon, said Israel believes it is permitted to build within existing settlement boundaries. As for outposts, he said, "Everything that is unauthorized and illegal will be removed once the legal proceedings are over."

"People are building up settlements and outposts every day in broad daylight," said Dror Etkes, head of Peace Now's Settlement Watch Team. "There's no way the government doesn't know about it."

In adopting a U.S.-backed peace plan called the "road map" 14 months ago, Israel agreed to freeze "all settlement activity" and "immediately" dismantle settlement outposts that had been erected since March 2001. The Israeli government says 28 outposts fall into that category; Peace Now says the real number is 51.

Also Thursday, officials said Egypt has proposed a Mideast peace conference in October to coordinate Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and the Bush administration offered its support.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians welcomed the idea, and "we said that we would participate."

But Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said the Palestinians cannot participate until they fulfill Israeli conditions of reforming security forces and moving against militants. "Until they do it, I don't see now that we're moving toward a new summit (meeting)," Shalom said after meeting European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana in Tel Aviv.

The conference proposal comes as internal conflict heightens among the Palestinians. A recent wave of kidnappings, riots, resignations and legislative turmoil has placed Yasser Arafat in one of the toughest positions of his long career.

Arafat, who has been locked in a tango of wills with his prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, received pressure from Solana, a normally friendly diplomatic source -- the European Union is the Palestinian Authority's largest benefactor. Solana said the union wants a prime minister who was empowered to make changes in government, clean up corruption and stop the descent into anarchy, Reuters reported.

Solana also said Israel's West Bank separation barrier violates international law and would be just as effective if built on Israeli territory. His comments came just two days after the 25-nation EU infuriated Israeli leaders by supporting a U.N. General Assembly resolution calling on Israel to tear down the barrier in compliance with a World Court ruling.

"We have respect for the right of the country to construct a fence in its own territory, but we do think that the route that the fence has taken is not one that is compatible with international law," Solana said during a joint news conference with Shalom.

Chronicle news services contributed to this report.

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