Israel 'to keep major settlements'

Ehud Olmert has said that Israel will give up territory and relinquish control over most of the West Bank's Palestinians, while holding on to main settlement blocs - his clearest statement yet about how he sees Israel's future final borders.

    Olmert also pledged to speed up work on the separation barrier

    In his first broadcast interview since taking power last month, Israel's acting prime minister told Channel 2 TV that if his Kadima Party wins the elections next month, Israel will hold on to Jerusalem and three large West Bank settlement blocs, along with the strategic Jordan River valley, and it might move by itself if no agreement can be reached with the Palestinians.

    "We will disengage from most of the Palestinian population that lives in Judea and Samaria," Olmert said on Tuesday, using the biblical names for the West Bank.

    "That will obligate us to leave territories under Israeli control today."

    He said the massive Jewish settlements of Gush Etzion and Maale Adumim will remain part of the state of Israel regardless of future developments.

    Maale Adumim is the largest Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank, built about 12km outside east Jerusalem and home to 28,000 residents.

    The sprawling Gush Etzion bloc lies to the south and houses 15,000 settlers.

    West bank tour

    "We will disengage from most of the Palestinian population that lives in Judea and Samaria"

    Ehud Olmert,
    acting Israeli prime minister

    Omert's comments came during a tour to inspect work on Israel's controversial separation barrier in the West Bank.

    The announcement follows a report released on Monday saying the overall number of Israelis living in settlements on Palestinian land increased last year despite the pullout from the Gaza Strip.

    The report, by settlement watchdog Peace Now, said around 10,000 Israelis moved into settlements across the occupied West Bank over the course of 2005, while around 9000 settlers were removed from 21 settlements in Gaza and four small enclaves in the West Bank.


    Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, expressed anger over the continuing Jewish settler growth and accused the Israeli government of grossly violating its commitments under the stalled roadmap peace plan.

    Roadmap obligations

    Under the roadmap, Israel is obliged to freeze all settlement expansion and demolish all outposts established since March 2001.

    Although Israel has frozen a controversial project to link Maale Adumim to east Jerusalem, following US criticism, Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister, used to promise the settlement would be connected to the holy city.


    Before his stroke last month, he had vowed that Israel would keep and develop large Jewish settlement blocs despite the pullout from the Gaza Strip, but also hinted at further pullbacks elsewhere in the West Bank.

    In his interview, Olmert also hinted that Israel might carry out further unilateral withdrawals from lands the Palestinians want for a state.

    "We are going toward separation from the Palestinians," he said. "We are going toward determining a permanent border for the state of Israel."

    Final settlement

    Palestinians say the separation
    wall is an Israeli land grab

    Negotiations aimed at a peace treaty and a permanent border between Israel and the West Bank have been frozen for years. The Palestinians claim the whole territory, but Israel says the border is defined only by a cease-fire line and is negotiable. 

    Olmert added that the Israeli wall was an efficient way to prevent attempted infiltrations of Palestinian militants into Israel.

    The Palestinians have denounced the sprawling structure as an attempt to grab their land and undermine the viability of their promised future state.
    In 2004, the International Court of Justice issued a non-binding ruling that parts of the 650km barrier which criss-crosses the West Bank were illegal and should be torn down.



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