Israel steps up settlement construction

Jewish settlement building on occupied Palestinian land has risen 35% last year despite a US-led peace plan that calls on Israel to freeze all construction.

    Nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers live on occupied Arab land

    Israeli government figures showed on Tuesday work began on about 1850 new settler

    homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 2003.

    Figures also revealed settler home-building in 2003 far outstripped Israel's overall rate, which fell 8%. 

    But Israel said it had the right to build in settlements to

    accommodate "natural growth".

    "The settlements ... are dynamic communities with a much

    larger growth in population than elsewhere," said Tourism

    Minister Benny Elon.

    'Natural growth'

    "Therefore it is natural construction and will also grow and grow."

    However, Hasan Abu Libdah, spokesman for Palestinian Prime Minister

    Ahmad Quraya, said settlement expansion showed Israel's lack of

    commitment to the US-backed "road map".

    He added it was proof of

     "US bias (in favour of) this Israeli government".

    Meanwhile, US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher reiterated

    Washington's position there needed to be an end to

    settlement activity as prescribed by the "road map".

    Sharon is the architect of Israel's
    settlement project

    "We do expect the Israeli government to keep its commitment

    to President Bush to dismantle all the unauthorised settlement

    outposts and to take further steps toward an end to settlement

    activity," he said.

    Illegal settlements

    The United States last year signalled its displeasure

    with Israeli settlement building, as well as the route of its

    West Bank barrier, by deducting nearly $290 million from a $9

    billion package of loan guarantees to Israel.

    The settlement expansion trend

    could also complicate Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's attempt for US

    approval for his unilateral "disengagement" plan.

    The right-wing prime minister's initiative calls for uprooting settlements in Gaza, plus removing several more in the West Bank and then drawing a "security line" that would leave Palestinians with less land than they seek for a state.

    There were

    signs from Washington on Monday, after a round of

    US-Israeli talks, the White House was moving towards

    agreeing to Sharon's controversial plan.

    There are nearly half a million Jewish settlers living on illegally occupied

    land in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

    Israel

    captured the lands in the 1967 Middle East war.

    SOURCE: Reuters


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