Russia urges halt to settlements

Sergei Lavrov calls on Israel to allow Palestinians in Gaza to "live normally".

    Lavrov's tour of the Middle East is aimed at promoting peace talks in Moscow [AFP]
    "We are worried by the Israeli settlement activity and urge Israel to end it," he said.

    Continued construction 

    Reports have emerged that Israel is due to begin a new expansion of a Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

    According to the Makor-Rishon Hatzofe newspaper, the mayor of the Efrat settlement in the southern West Bank is due to lay the cornerstone of the new neighbourhood on Sunday.


    Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minster, says
    settlement activity will continue [EPA]

    The project consists of 54 residential units, and was approved "in principle" by the Israeli government in 2003.  

    Efrat has a population of 4,000, and is part of the Gush Etzion block south of Jerusalem.
    Meanwhile in southern Hebron, four mobile homes have been set up in the Tenne Omarim settlement to be used as a temporary means of accommodation for Jewish families.

    Local media reported that it was approved by the Israeli defence ministry.

    Israel considers the whole of Jerusalem, including the Arab eastern sector,  captured during the 1967 Middle East war, its "eternal, undivided capital" - a claim not recognised under international law.

    Gaza concerns
    Lavrov also urged Israel to lift the crippling sanctions it imposed on the Gaza Strip in January in an attempt to end almost daily rocket fire from fighters based in the impoverished enclave.
    "The blockade imposed against Gaza is unacceptable and it must be ended so the Palestinian people can live normally," he said.

    On Thursday, Lavrov met Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, and Khalid Meshaal, the exiled Hamas leader in Damascus.

    He then met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

    Lavrov reiterated his aim to host a Middle East peace conference in Moscow, seen as a follow-up to last year's meeting held in the US city of Annapolis.

    A date for the conference "will be fixed in the near future," Lavrov said.

    "The main objective is to help the ongoing talks to create a  positive atmosphere that will allow the peace process to reach a conclusion."

    Israeli scepticism 

    Abbas welcomed the announcement.

    "There have been enough international conferences. What is needed is to move forward in direct negotiations"

    Senior Israeli official

    "We insisted on the need to organise this follow-up in Moscow as soon as possible," he said.

    However, a senior Israeli official expressed reservations over the  proposed Moscow gathering.
    "Out of diplomatic courtesy, we didn't reject the plan, but the truth is, we are not enthusiastic," the official said.

    "There have been enough international conferences. What is needed is to move forward in direct negotiations with the Palestinian Authority."

    Russia is a member of the international "Quartet" of nations trying to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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