JERUSALEM — The government of 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 Defense Ministry spokeswoman on Monday confirmed a report in the Maariv newspaper that Israel planned to expand Maale Adumim -- at nearly 30,000 residents, the largest settlement in the West Bank. She declined to elaborate.
The newspaper said the government gave the construction order two months ago but did not announce it, to avoid international criticism.
Under a U.S.-backed diplomatic initiative, Israel is to freeze settlement activity and remove illegal outposts -- smaller offshoots of settlements -- built since March 2001. The Bush administration has expressed frustration over the lack of progress in removing the outposts.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the move to build homes at Maale Adumim "appears to be incompatible with" the diplomatic plan, known as the road map.
Activists with the Israeli group Peace Now said expanding Maale Adumim could harm future efforts at a negotiated solution with the Palestinians by further dividing the West Bank.
"It's another bullet in the cadaver of the road map," said Dror Etkes, who monitors settlement construction for the group.
In a related development, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told Israel Radio that Israel's barrier in and around the West Bank would enclose Maale Adumim and Gush Etzion, another settlement block near Jerusalem.
Palestinian officials say the barrier will create a de facto border and in effect appropriate land they want for an independent state. But Israel, which says it needs the barrier to keep out suicide bombers, expects to retain the major settlement blocks under any negotiated agreement -- a stance endorsed by President Bush in April.
Meanwhile Monday, about 1,500 people rallied in the West Bank city of Ramallah to show support for Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, while his prime minister outlined a police-reform plan to answer growing lawlessness and internal discontent.
Arafat's dominant Fatah movement has been roiled by complaints from within its ranks over corruption and misrule in the Palestinian Authority.
Prime Minister Ahmed Korei said the Cabinet had approved a law enforcement plan to improve lines of command, issue uniforms and cars, and make clear that no one is above the law.
"By this, we have taken an important first step, but we still have many challenges ahead of us," Korei told reporters outside his Ramallah office.
Korei said the Palestinian Authority needed money to buy uniforms and cars for its police force, which accounts for perhaps a quarter of the 40,000 men who make up the Palestinian security forces.
Korei said he would seek international backing and urge Israel not to interfere with police officers during Israeli military incursions into Palestinian cities.
Palestinian officials said last week that Arafat had agreed to yield to the prime minister and Cabinet some of his control over the security forces, though as president he will retain control over intelligence and national security. The police fall under Korei and the interior minister.
Recent incidents have prompted worries of a breakdown of law and order in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. On Sunday, members of a pro-Arafat militia fired shots outside a West Bank meeting hall where Fatah activists had gathered to discuss internal reforms.
In other developments, Palestinian gunmen in Gaza City entered a hospital in separate attacks and killed two men who had been imprisoned for collaborating with Israel. The victims were among seven prisoners wounded early Monday when a police officer hurled two grenades into part of the city jail holding convicted collaborators.
Officials said the apparent target was Walid Hamdiya, a former Hamas leader sentenced to death in 2002 for helping Israelis find and kill five Hamas members from 1987 to 1995.
Hamdiya and the others were taken to Shifa Hospital. Gunmen killed one man Monday morning and escaped. Hamdiya was killed later in a second shooting. A third prisoner died of wounds suffered in the grenade attack, hospital officials said.
Elsewhere, a 55-year-old Palestinian woman was reportedly killed by gunfire during an Israeli military incursion early Monday into the Khan Yunis refugee camp in southern Gaza. Israeli military officials said they were looking into the incident.
Early today, three more Palestinians were reported killed in southern Gaza following an explosion. Initial witness reports blamed an Israeli helicopter strike, but other Palestinians said militants were trying to plant a roadside bomb when it exploded in Rafah.
Special correspondent Maher Abukhater contributed to this report from Ramallah.