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Israel stays firm on settlers

As Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, prepares to see President Bill Clinton in Washington to give Israel's views on a new United States peace initiative, Israel says it will not stop building settlements at Har Homa in Jerusalem or elsewhere.

At the same time Israel has dropped its demand to extradite Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, the political head of Hamas, the Islamic militant movement, who has been held in a US prison for 18 months. The extradition request was dropped for reasons "relating to security and the prevention of terrorism", said an Israeli official.

The decision not to extradite Mr Marzook, who may now go to Jordan, shows that Israel is wary of provoking Hamas, despite its demand that Yasser Arafat put its leaders in jail. In October 1995 Israel made a 900-page extradition demand charging Mr Marzook with involvement in "murder, conspiracy and other crimes". The Palestinian leader had asked that Mr Marzook not be sent to Israel.

It is unclear if Mr Netanyahu will come under pressure from the US to freeze settlements in order to get negotiations started. The Israeli prime minister ignored two letters from Mr Clinton asking him not to build at Har Homa, but even so the US vetoed two UN Security Council resolutions condemning the Har Homa settlement.

In New York James Baker, the former US Secretary of State, criticised the US veto saying: "I am disappointed that my government saw fit to veto the Security Council resolution after standing up and saying it opposed settlement activity."

Israel is asking for a crackdown, which means mass arrests and detention without trial by the Palestinian Authority, on Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The authority is reported to have arrested 125 Jihad members.