- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2003

JERUSALEM — Israel yesterday said it would build new housing in a Gaza Strip settlement, angering Palestinians and raising questions about implementation of the U.S.-backed “road map” for peace.

Israel opened bidding for contracts to build 22 homes in the largest Jewish settlement in Gaza, Neve Dekalim. About 2,400 Israelis live in Neve Dekalim, which anchors a group of settlements near the Gaza coast.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, called the planned construction “a very dangerous step.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the road map calls for a freeze on settlement activity.

“A freeze is a freeze,” he said, adding that the administration and Israel were discussing how to implement the road map.

The Israeli Defense Ministry said the 22 units were in the settlement’s original plan, and their construction would not violate the road map because they reflected natural growth of the settlement.

However, the peace plan states, “Israel also freezes all settlement activity, consistent with the Mitchell report.” That international study from May 2001 says Israel “should freeze all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements.”

Palestinians demand that all settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip be removed as part of the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

Separate summits in Washington over the past week between President Bush and the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers brought out the differences over the peace plan.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said implementation of the first phase of the plan, including a “total cessation of violence,” is beginning.

On June 29, Palestinian groups called a limited cease-fire, greatly reducing violence, but Israel insisted that violent militant groups be disarmed. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who met Mr. Bush on July 25, fears a civil war and is resisting a crackdown.

Since the truce declaration, Palestinians have been demanding that Israel release thousands of prisoners. Israel is offering to free a few hundred.

Yesterday, tempers boiled over at a prison in the southern Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon. About 400 Palestinian inmates rioted, and five were slightly injured, the prison service said.

In the West Bank town of Qalqiliya, Palestinians and Israeli supporters demonstrated at the site of the security barrier Israel is building along the West Bank line. Qalqiliya is on the line and is next to a new north-south highway just inside Israel. To protect the road from snipers, Israel built a high, concrete barrier.

Other fences cut off the town on three sides, leaving one entry-exit point to the rest of the West Bank.

“The wall is in complete contradiction of our interests. We are living inside of a prison,” Qalqiliya Mayor Marouf Zahran said. “We have no freedom of movement.”

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