Israel plans to build more than 6000 homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank this year, an Israeli newspaper has said.
The reported settlement expansion project of the Israel Lands Administration (ILA), a government agency, would coincide with Israel's plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip this summer and defy US calls for a freeze in "settlement activity".
The US-backed "road map" requires a halt to settlement building on land Israel captured in 1967 and where Palestinians want statehood. Palestinians are worried that Israel wants to quit Gaza only to annex areas around more populous West Bank settlement blocks.
Settlements built on occupied Palestinian lands are deemed illegal under international law. But Israel disputes this.
The Yediot Ahronoth daily reported on Friday that the ILA's working plan for 2005 calls for 6391 homes to be built in existing West Bank settlements. The newspaper said Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz had given the go-ahead for the marketing of the housing projects.
News of the Israeli settlement expansion plan broke against the backdrop of the arrival of Jibril al-Rajub, Palestinian national security adviser, in Cairo.
Aljazeera's Cairo correspondent said al-Rajub is scheduled to hold meetings with Egyptian officials and that on agenda are preparations for a conference of different Palestinian factions due to be held in Cairo on 5 March.
The factions are expected to discuss the possibility of formalising the ceasefire with Israel in accordance with the understanding reached between the Israeli and Palestinian sides at the last Sharm al-Shaikh summit in Egypt. Up until now, the truce has been observed only informally.
Back in Israel, Yediot Ahronoth says the Sharon government plans to "legitimise" 120 unauthorised settlement outposts in the West Bank that it has promised the United States to dismantle.
However, the ILA has denied the report. "This is a draft of a plan that was submitted in 2003," Adam Avidan, a spokesman for the Israel Lands Authority, said. "It was never approved."
Avidan said he did not know how many new homes would be
built this year in existing settlements in the West Bank.
Responding to the report, Mofaz's office said in a statement he had approved building permits for "a limited number of housing units" in settlement blocs. The statement gave no figures.
Palestinian chief negotiator Saib Uraiqat urged US President George Bush to press Israel "to make sure such a plan is not implemented and that his call for a freeze in all settlement activity is implemented".
Defence Minister Mofaz is said to
have approved the plans
Israel has said it will continue to build in existing settlements to accommodate what it calls the natural growth of their populations.
A professor of political science at Bir Zait University, Ali al-Jarbawi, told Aljazeera.net that the proposed expansions could be expected to be a stumbling block to the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). "But under the current circumstances, the negotiations will go on unaffected."
Al-Jarbawi criticised the PA for starting negotiations with Israel while the separation wall and settlements are still being built.
"The future Palestinian state will be 'what is left for us from them', which means whatever the Israelis do not want they will give to us"
Ali al- Jarbawi,
professor of political science at Bir Zait University
"As a result the future Palestinian state will be 'what is left for us from them', which means whatever the Israelis do not want they will give to us," he told Aljazeera.net.
"Eventually we will have autonomy over the Gaza Strip in addition to half of the West Bank that will be divided into unconnected parts."
About 225,000 Israelis live in 120 settlements in the West Bank, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has pledged to hold on to major settlement blocks in the territory in any permanent peace accord with the Palestinians.
Yediot Ahronoth said a third of the new Israeli homes planned this year in the West Bank would be built just outside Jerusalem in Maale Adumim, Israel's largest settlement, which has a population of 30,000.
According to the ILA's website, the agency marketed 1783 new housing units in the West Bank in 2004 and 1225 in 2003.
Natasha Tynes contributed to this report.