Israel defies freeze on illegal settlements

Israel approved plans yesterday to build 330 new homes in a suburban West Bank settlement north of Jerusalem. The move was denounced by the Palestinian Authority as "a slap in the face of the peace process" and called on the Quartet of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia to "act to get Israel to revoke the decision".

Saeb Erakat, the Palestinians' chief negotiator, said: "This is a provocative action by Israel that demonstrates its intention of further strengthening illegal occupation and colonisation of Palestinian territory."

He branded the timing of the decision as "outrageous" because it came on the eve of American-Israeli-Palestinian talks to assess the two sides' performance under the international road map for peace. Expansion of settlements is supposed to be frozen under the terms of the peace process. The settlements, illegal under international law, already account for nearly 40 per cent of West Bank territory. The UN warned recently that they are making the achie-vement of an eventual two state solution elusive.

Israel, which denied the plan was being launched in retaliation for Thursday's massacre of eight students in a Jerusalem yeshiva seminary, defended the decision, despite earlier undertakings to stop building on the West Bank. The 330 homes in Givat Ze'ev were part of a projected 750 dwellings approved in 1999 and frozen after the Palestinian intifada broke out a year later.

Building was said to have been suspended for economic reasons. Developers feared no one would buy the homes, designated for ultra-Orthodox Jewish families. In a new, less violent climate, they were eager to cash in.

Previously, Israel had insisted on its "sovereign right" to build within Jeru-salem's municipal borders, expanded to include the Arab half of the city after the 1967 war. Givat Ze'ev lies just across the Jerusalem-Ramallah border.

Mark Regev, the Prime Minister's spokesman, said last night: "Israel will not agree to a total freeze within the settlement blocks. That would be unrealistic. Givat Ze'ev is one of the Jerusalem suburbs, even though it is not within the municipal borders."

He argued that it lay within the large settlement blocks, close to the pre-1967 border, that Israel expected to retain after a final peace agreement with the Palestinians. "Building inside areas that will be staying inside Israel is not problematic for peace," he said.

The Givat Ze'ev initiative is unlikely to appease the settlers, still seething after the attack on their flagship Mercaz Harav yeshiva. Many are threatening to establish eight unauthorised West Bank outposts as a "suitable Zionist response" to the killing of the students.

Police were on high alert in Jerusalem yesterday to prevent further Palestinian attacks. They continued to interrogate eight members of the yeshiva killer's family. Security forces also detained six Jewish extremists, bearing placards calling for revenge, who had marched on the mourning tent in the East Jerusalem suburb of Jabel Mukaber.

A leading settler rabbi, Shlomo Aviner, wrote yest-erday: "The entire Jewish nation must rise as one person with one heart to take vengeance for the murder of any Jew so that other murderers will see and be afraid and plot no more."

On the Gaza front, an undeclared ceasefire seemed to be holding. No rockets were fired into Israel over the weekend. The Israeli army said 73 lorries carrying food and medicines entered Gaza yesterday, but petrol stocks were low and supplies limited in markets.

Mr Regev, the government spokesman, said: "Our military was not operating in Gaza because we wanted to; rather because we had to act to protect our civilian population. If rockets aren't being fired at Israeli communities, our need to respond is no longer there."

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