- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 22, 2004

JERUSALEM — Palestinian leaders reacted angrily yesterday to Washington’s apparent readiness to allow construction inside Israeli settlements in the West Bank, warning that it would destroy the peace process.

American officials in Israel said the U.S. government is not objecting to construction in the main settlement blocs — as long as the settlements themselves are not expanded — while an internal administration debate over the issue continues.

Such a shift would run counter to the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan presented by President Bush in June 2003. The plan’s initial stage mandates a complete freeze in construction in the settlements.

“I can’t believe that America is now saying that settlement expansion is all right,” Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said. “This will destroy the peace process.”

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a top aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, called on the White House to “clarify” its position, fearing that it would “encourage the Israeli government to continue and escalate its war against the Palestinian people.”

The American officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said a U.S. team will visit Israel next month to discuss where construction would be permitted.

In Washington, administration officials insisted they are not signaling any major change in policy.

“We continue to work with the Israelis on progress toward the settlement freeze,” said Jim Wilkinson, deputy national security adviser.

In a related development, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office announced the official opening of an agency to provide compensation to Jewish settlers who leave the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements.

According to Mr. Sharon’s “unilateral disengagement” plan, Israel is to evacuate all 21 Gaza settlements and four in the West Bank by late next year. However, the plan has triggered widespread opposition in Mr. Sharon’s own party.

Mr. Sharon has said one of the indirect goals of the plan is to allow reinforcement of the main West Bank settlement blocs.

The settlement question is one of the touchiest of the disagreements between Israel and the Palestinians. Since taking control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war, Israel has built more than 150 settlements, where about 235,000 Israelis live — about 8,000 of them in Gaza.

Palestinians claim the territories for a state and demand that all the settlements be removed. The Palestinians see settlement expansion as an Israeli attempt to permanently occupy their land and make it impossible for them to establish a state.

Israel counters that there is no permanent border between the West Bank and Israel, and that the settlements question should be answered as part of peace negotiations.

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