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Israel Dismisses U.S. Demands on Settlement Expansion

Mideast: Despite heightened tensions, Netanyahu won't halt West Bank, Gaza Strip construction.

September 27, 1997| From Associated Press

JERUSALEM — Brushing off U.S. demands for a freeze on settlement expansion, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday that he will continue building in the Jewish enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu's defiant stance heightened tensions with the United States at a time when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is trying to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Netanyahu surprised Albright this week by announcing that he would build 300 more homes in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, despite her recent call for a "timeout" in such settlement construction.

"I am calling on the prime minister to honor the timeout," an angry Albright said Thursday.

The Netanyahu government has argued that it must continue to build to accommodate the settlement's natural growth. However, government critics say Netanyahu is luring Israelis to settlements with generous grants and tax breaks.

Albright also demanded during a Middle East visit earlier this month that the Palestinians crack down on Islamic militants responsible for a series of suicide attacks in Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat appeared to be honoring his side of the bargain. Over the past three days, he has rounded up dozens of suspected members of the militant group Hamas and closed 16 Hamas institutions.

Arafat was spurred into action after Israel this week identified four suicide bombers from two recent attacks in Jerusalem as Hamas activists from the West Bank who had walked out of a loosely guarded Palestinian jail last year.

The Palestinian leader had insisted for weeks that the bombers responsible for the July 30 and Sept. 4 attacks came from abroad.

Asked whether he would consider Albright's request for a settlement freeze, Netanyahu said Friday: "I don't see anyone suggesting that construction be stopped in Arab communities that have natural growth as well."

Netanyahu said he was surprised by the angry U.S. reaction to his decision to build more homes in Efrat, saying the construction had been approved by the previous, Labor government of the late Yitzhak Rabin.

Binyamin Ben Eliezer, who served as Labor's housing minister, said the previous government favored expanding Efrat but was aware that it could cause friction with the Palestinians.

"As long as the building was done quietly and without fanfare and within Efrat, we supported it," Ben Eliezer said. "However, now is a sensitive time, and that must be taken into account."

Israel Radio said that the army has been preparing for a possible Palestinian uprising as a result of the deepening crisis and that Israeli soldiers this week practiced retaking West Bank areas under Palestinian control.

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