- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2005

JERUSALEM — The United States has turned up the pressure on Israel to stop expanding West Bank settlements, Israeli officials said yesterday. In the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces clashed with Jewish settlers as bulldozers flattened a row of abandoned buildings to prevent pullout opponents from occupying them.

The Israeli Cabinet, meanwhile, continued sweetening the pot to defuse widespread settler resistance to the evacuation. Yesterday, it approved new concessions to settlers who are to be uprooted this summer, including deeply discounted land in a prime coastal area not far from Gaza.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Israel during her visit last week that Washington would not accept new West Bank construction, and that it had to stop.

Israeli officials present at the meeting during which Miss Rice leveled the criticism said she did not threaten any particular penalty for settlement expansion, but was displeased by construction she saw when traveling from Jerusalem to the West Bank town of Ramallah for meetings with Palestinian leaders.

Miss Rice said the United States would not accept new conditions Israel is creating to influence a final peace deal, the officials said on the condition of anonymity.

The U.S. Embassy and Israeli Foreign Ministry refused to comment. But the scolding meshes with President Bush’s criticism of settlement expansion after meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas last month.

In Gaza, Israeli military bulldozers began knocking down eight dilapidated seaside buildings Egyptians had used as vacation cottages before Israel captured Gaza in 1967. Pullout opponents had planned to bring reinforcements into the buildings near the Shirat Hayam settlement.

Young settler activists screamed at the soldiers and climbed on and under a bulldozer to block its path. They scuffled briefly with soldiers who dragged them away. Military officials said one Israeli civilian was slightly injured and taken to a hospital.

One Israeli soldier was punished for siding with the settlers.

Friction between the United States and Israel has surfaced over different readings of Mr. Bush’s April 2004 statement that a peace settlement would have to take Israel’s main settlement blocks into account.

Israel continues to build in its largest settlement, Maaleh Adumim, and other established West Bank communities and to expropriate Palestinian land in annexed East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of a future state.

Washington maintains that new construction on land the Palestinians claim for a future state violates the terms of the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, which Washington hopes to revive after Israel pulls out of the Gaza Strip and four northern West Bank settlements this summer.

The long-stalled plan calls on Israel to freeze all settlement activity, while requiring the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups. Neither side has fulfilled its obligations.

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