Israel to step up settlements on occupied lands

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The Independent Online

Yasser Arafat sets off today to meet Bill Clinton in Washington tomorrow, determined to push for an international peace-keeping force to protect Palestinians - despite Israeli and American opposition.

Yasser Arafat sets off today to meet Bill Clinton in Washington tomorrow, determined to push for an international peace-keeping force to protect Palestinians - despite Israeli and American opposition.

As he was preparing to leave, the prospects for resuming meaningful final status talks became still more dismal as evidence emerged that Israel was planning to continue pouring money into developing and subsidising illegal Jewish settlements in the occupiedterritories. Heavy fighting was reported last night at one such settlement, Gilo, built on occupied land south of Jerusalem.

Mr Arafat's demand for an international protection force has already been brushed aside by Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, who has said it would be tantamount to rewarding the Palestinians for violence. About 180 people have been killed in what the Palestinians call the "al-Aqsa intifada", most of them young Arabs shot by the Israeli armed forces.

Mr Arafat, the Palestinian leader, said he had submitted a request 10 days ago to the United Nations for an international body to protect Palestinians from Israeli forces. "It is the right of every country that is being exposed to aggression to ask," he told reporters.

Mr Barak is likely to restate his opposition to such a force when he meets Mr Clinton at the White House on Sunday, although the US President - long accused by Palestinians of pro-Israeli bias - appears unwilling to press the point on Mr Arafat's behalf.

No UN force can be deployed without Israel's agreement, a point underscored by Mr Clinton. "The Israelis are strongly opposed to it, therefore it can't happen," he told an interviewer.

The talks between Mr Clinton and Mr Arafat are unlikely to move much beyond looking for a way to end the violence. Mr Barak is politically far too weak to assume the positions he adopted at the failed Camp David summit in July, let alone go further towards meeting Palestinian demands.

The gulf dividing the two sides yawned still wider yesterday when Peace Now, an Israeli pressure group, released details of budget submissions to the Knesset, which showed that Mr Barak will ask for 1.2bn shekels (£210m) next year - for Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

The 200,000 settlers on Palestinian land are one of the biggest obstacles to a final status agreement. Mr Barak's appetite for building has drawn criticism, even from his US allies. The budget bid - about the same as last year, when settlements expanded apace - suggests that he has no plans to change tack.

Professor Galia Golan, a Peace Now spokeswoman, said: "There is no question that the expansion of settlement activity was one of the central elements in Israel's failure to create minimum credibility in the eyes of the Palestinians."

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