The Israeli daily Maariv on Tuesday reported that Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz had asked the military to draw up plans within three months for building thousands of homes in three of the settlement blocs - Gush Etzion, Maale Adumim and Ariel.

  

Mofaz on Monday met settlers in Gush Etzion, and security officials said he told them he would consider their request to authorise between 1,000 and 2,000 new homes in the area. Mofaz told them he would take a decision within three months, the officials said on condition of anonymity.

  

Maariv reported that new construction is also being considered in Maale Adumim and Ariel, the West Bank's two largest settlements.

  

Israeli Labour leader Shimon Peres denounced the plans for building up settlements in the West Bank while talking about evacuating Gaza.

 

Waste

  

Eventually "they will do in the West Bank what they are doing in Gaza, they will accept our position" that settlements must be evacuated, Peres said. "If they build more, annex more, they will waste more money," Peres told a party meeting in Tel Aviv.

  

Maariv said Mofaz told the head of the Israeli occupation administration in West Bank to accelerate authorisation for a number of construction projects in Gush Etzion.

  

"We call on the American administration for direct and immediate intervention to revoke and stop all these plans"

Saib Uraiqat,
cabinet minister, Palestinian Authority

The Palestinians want West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War, for their future state.

 

Palestinian leaders have also expressed reservations on the Gaza plan because of the implied tradeoff - Israel giving up Gaza while strengthening its hold on parts of the West Bank.

  

"We call on the American administration for direct and immediate intervention to revoke and stop all these plans," said Palestinian cabinet minister Saib Uraiqat.

 

All Israeli settlements in West Bank and Gaza are considered illegal under international law.

 

Sharon's plan of "unilateral disengagement" calls for a withdrawal from all of Gaza and four West Bank settlements by September 2005.

 

He has said that in exchange, he wants to keep and expand several large settlement blocs in the West Bank - a demand that has won the support of US President George Bush.