New Golan Heights settlement plan derails peace talks

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The Independent Online

In another blow to the prospects of peace in the Middle East, the Israeli government has approved plans to double the number of Jewish settlers living in the occupied Golan Heights within three years.

The details of the $56m (£31.4m) project to expand settlements on the Golan Heights emerged yesterday, just weeks after Syria's President, Bashar Assad, called for new peace talks with Israel. The settlement project could now put any talks in jeopardy. "The goal is for Assad to see from the windows of his home the Israeli Golan thriving and flourishing," the Israeli Agriculture Minister, Yisrael Katz, who is responsible for the new scheme, said yesterday.

"The government resolution is a response to the initiative posed by Syria, which on one hand announces that it is interested in peace, and on the other hand openly supports Palestinian terror," he told the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.

But Israeli officials close to the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, tried to play down Mr Katz's comments, insisting the new project was planned before President Assad's comments, and was not a reaction to them.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War. The area has been under occupation ever since. Unlike the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which were also captured in 1967, Israel has since annexed the Golan Heights and claims they are part of Israel. The annexation is considered illegal and not recognised by governments around the world.

Syria has consistently said that it will only make peace with Israel if all the occupied Golan Heights are returned. The Golan is populated by several thousand Druze - an offshoot of Islam - many of whom consider themselves Syrians living under Israeli occupation. But thousands of Jewish settlers have also moved to the Golan since the Israeli occupation, just as thousands have settled in the West Bank and Gaza to stake a claim to the land as Israeli.

The aim of the new settlements plan for the Golan is to establish an Israeli presence on the ground ahead of any peace talks with Syria, saidYedioth Ahronoth, which revealed the existence of the project.

"The Golan is ours and we do not intend to give it up," Mr Katz told the newspaper. "It is time to put the Golan on the map as part of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel."

Syria called the plan a "flagrant expression of opposition to peace". It "blocks the way to any inclination or initiative to push matters in the direction of achieving a just and comprehensive peace in the region" a government spokesman was quoted as saying by the official Syrian Arab News Agency.

It appeared that Mr Katz had broken ranks with Israeli government ministers - and angered Mr Sharon - by speaking so openly about the project. "This was not intended as a message to Syria. This programme has been misused and slanted and twisted, taken out of context for internal political purposes," said a government spokesman close to the Prime Minister. Other government sources were quick to disown Mr Katz's statements.

Government spokesmen denied Yedioth Ahronoth's report that nine new settlements were planned in the Golan, and said that only existing settlements would be expanded. Most of the money to finance the scheme is to be raised from the private sector and the project also includes plans to develop tourism in the Golan.

"Mr Sharon and his government have revealed another stage in their road-map for liquidating peace in the region," said Dalia Itzik, an Israeli opposition Labour MP. "After strewing mines in the negotiations with the Palestinians, it is time to mine the road to negotiations with Syria," she said.