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Israel Denies It's Planning Major Settlement Project

A newspaper says the government intends to add thousands of homes to Maale Adumim, linking the West Bank suburb to Jerusalem.

August 06, 2004|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israeli officials disputed an Israeli news report Thursday that the government planned to build thousands of homes at the edge of a major West Bank settlement outside Jerusalem -- an expansion that would bridge two cities but run afoul of a U.S.-backed peace plan.

A spokesman for Israel's Housing Ministry said the plan was at least 10 years old and that the government would not be building in the immediate future.

The Maariv newspaper reported that the government had put the land -- 3,750 acres between Jerusalem and the settlement of Maale Adumim -- under state ownership several months ago, making it eligible for construction.

The newspaper said the ministry, which oversees settlement development, had quietly begun preparing the site by building the first roads and planning sewers and sidewalks.

The U.S. government opposes new settlement construction. Under the stalled peace plan, Israel is to freeze settlement activity and tear down all settlement offshoots, known as outposts, built since March 2001.

This week, the State Department reiterated its opposition to settlement expansion after news reports that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had approved construction of 600 homes in Maale Adumim, a suburban city of about 30,000 that is the largest settlement in the West Bank. Israeli officials said that plan was not new and that most of the homes had already been built.

In response to Thursday's report, a Housing Ministry spokesman said plans for new homes that would fill the gap between Maale Adumim and Jerusalem had existed since the early 1990s. He said Israel had no immediate plans to build there -- any move would require government approval of detailed plans.

"These are only general plans, not operative ones," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said road building and other work underway there was for Maale Adumim itself.

But Maale Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel told Maariv, "Within six months, planning work in the Housing Ministry will be completed, and then it will be possible to submit a town plan for the defense minister's approval."

Bulldozers and trucks were at work building a road on the hillside tract Thursday, Associated Press reported.

Settlement expansion was on the agenda Thursday as Elliott Abrams, a senior U.S. envoy, met here with Palestinian and Israeli officials. The Bush administration has made clear its dissatisfaction over Israel's slow progress in removing outposts, which many say are an impediment to peace with the Palestinians.

Palestinian leaders say expanding West Bank settlements further hurts chances for negotiating a peace deal by carving up land on which the Palestinians hope to form an independent state.

"It's an issue that we're watching closely and paying attention to," said Paul Patin, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.

Sharon told Abrams there were no plans for new housing between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim, according to Israeli media reports.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said this week that the barrier Israel was building in and around the West Bank would enclose Maale Adumim, as well as a large settlement block south of Jerusalem known as Gush Etzion.

Israel maintains that it should keep the settlements in any permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians, and thus should be allowed to expand the neighborhoods. In April, the Bush administration backed Israel's claims to the major settlements.

In other developments Thursday, Palestinian residents in the Gaza Strip village of Beit Hanoun returned after fleeing an Israeli military offensive that lasted five weeks. Israeli soldiers pulled out Thursday morning in what the military said was a redeployment of forces.

The army entered in late June as part of a campaign to thwart the firing of homemade Kassam rockets by Palestinian militants. The projectiles are regularly launched from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory. The incursion into Beit Hanoun came after a Kassam attack killed two Israelis, including a 4-year-old boy, in the Israeli town of Sderot.

An Israeli army spokesman said the effort to stop the rockets would continue.

Beit Hanoun residents decried the destruction of crops by Israeli bulldozers during the incursion. Hundreds of acres of fields and roads were bulldozed, and homes were severely damaged, witnesses said.

Three Palestinian Authority Cabinet ministers who were in Beit Hanoun had to cut short a news conference after they were ordered to leave by members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. The militant group, which is linked to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, criticized the ministers for not appearing during the incursion.

The group has clashed recently with officials of the Palestinian Authority, mainly over Arafat's decision last month to name his cousin as security chief for the Gaza Strip.

Also Thursday, Israeli officials agreed to allow Palestinian police to resume carrying weapons in some places, according to Israeli news reports. Palestinian leaders want to start issuing the guns again as part of their effort to restore law and order.

Israel has not allowed Palestinian police to carry weapons in most of the West Bank for more than two years, saying they were used to help militants. Police in the Gaza Strip, which is semiautonomous, do carry weapons.

And Israel said it would reopen the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip today, allowing hundreds of Palestinians their first opportunity to return home in nearly three weeks.

Israel closed the crossing July 18, citing security concerns. The closure left more than 2,500 Palestinians stranded on the Egyptian side and led humanitarian groups to urge Israel to reopen the crossing.

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