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U.S. criticizes Israeli settlement construction plan

- Associated Press - Sunday, March 13, 2011

JERUSALEM (AP) — The U.S. Embassy said Monday it was "deeply concerned" by Israel's plans to build hundreds of new homes in the West Bank following a deadly attack on a settler family, calling Israeli settlements "illegitimate" and an obstacle to peacemaking.

In a rare interview to the Israeli media, the Palestinian president reached out to the Israeli public, decrying the weekend attack in the settlement of Itamar as "despicable, immoral and inhuman." But he rejected the Israeli suggestion that his government was indirectly to blame.

While the country was still reeling from the gruesome attack, in which two parents and three young children were stabbed fatally as they slept, the Israeli government announced Sunday that it had approved the construction of between 400 and 500 new homes in major West Bank settlement blocs.

"They murder; we build," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday during a condolence call to the grieving family. Palestinian militants are presumed to have carried out the assault.

The plans for new construction infuriated Palestinians and, together with the attack, drove prospects for renewed peacemaking even further out of reach. A Netanyahu aide said the Israeli government informed the United States — which has been toiling with little success to break the negotiations deadlock — of the decision.

"We're deeply concerned by continuing Israeli actions on settlements in the West Bank," the statement from the U.S. Embassy said. "As we said before, we view these settlements as illegitimate and as running counter to efforts to resume direct negotiations."

Just last month, the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction. The United States said it agreed with the wider world about the illegitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity but thought Israelis and Palestinians should resolve key conflicts between them and the council wasn't the proper venue for the dispute. The council's 14 other members voted in favor of the resolution.

A senior Israeli official responded to the U.S. criticism by reasserting Israel's expectation that the major settlement blocs, where most of the 300,000 West Bank settlers live, will remain in Israeli hands under any final peace accord.

An additional 200,000 settlers live in east Jerusalem, captured along with the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians want both territories, along with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, for their future state. They say all settlements are illegitimate.

Early Monday, the Israeli army pressed forward with its search for the attacker in Awarta, a Palestinian village next to Itamar. Residents said soldiers using loudspeakers ordered men between the ages of 18 and 40 to report to a village school for questioning.

Village resident Mashour Awad said that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people from a nearby neighborhood were taken to the school and that no one put up any resistance. "I've seen people from that neighborhood going because they fear the soldiers may come to their homes and they could face worse. They prefer to go," he said.

Jewish settlers bent on retaliation, meanwhile, threw rocks at cars driving on a main road linking the Palestinian cities of Nablus and Ramallah and set several cars on fire outside of Ramallah and in the town of Qalqiliya, Palestinian officials said.

Disputes over settlement construction have driven peacemaking into a virtual standstill for the past two years. Palestinians refuse to negotiate until Israel halts all building on occupied territories. Israel says negotiations should not be held hostage to conditions and note that previous rounds of talks took place while construction proceeded.

Israeli officials have accused Mr. Abbas of only tepidly condemning the carnage in Itamar, and they suggested his government was indirectly to blame, calling it the product of incitement against Israel.

Responding to the Israeli pressure, Mr. Abbas spoke to state-run Israel Radio on Monday, harshly condemning the violence and saying his government would have prevented the assault if it had had advance knowledge. He said he would not allow violence to expand.

But Mr. Abbas disputed Israel's allegations that Palestinian clerics preach incitement, saying his government hands out a uniform sermon to be delivered by all. He also called for a joint Israeli-Palestinian-U.S. team to examine claims of incitement in Palestinian textbooks.

Israel long has contended that Palestinian textbooks and official media preach hatred toward Israel and that the killers of Israelis are often glorified.

On Sunday, a group of activists from Mr. Abbas' Fatah movement dedicated a square in the West Bank city of Ramallah after Dalal Mughrabi, a female militant who carried out a 1978 bus attack that killed 37 Israelis. Aides to Mr. Abbas said they tried to stop the ceremony and the move was not officially sanctioned.

Still, Israel has not produced evidence that incitement contributed to the killings.

The military has taken some 20 people into custody in connection with the attacks but has provided no further details. Mr. Abbas said Palestinian security officials were working with Israel to find the assailant.

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