Olmert says West Bank settlements will stay

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The Independent Online

Israel would maintain control of its eastern border with Jordan and a " united Jerusalem" as well as some of the biggest settlements blocs in any withdrawal from the West Bank, the acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said last night.

The first authoritative indications of what might form a new Israeli border came as Israel, with Mr Olmert as acting Prime Minister, assassinated three more Palestinian militants and brought the total killed in the West Bank and Gaza since Sunday to nine.

Mr Olmert went further in an interview with Channel Two television than Ariel Sharon, who remains in a coma since suffering a massive stroke last month, in defining how the new party Kadima would seek to draw the borders of Israel if it wins next month's election.

Mr Olmert hinted at unilateral withdrawals rather than ones by agreement now that Hamas has won the Palestinian elections. He suggested that Jerusalem would not be divided to restore the Arab eastern sectors to the Palestinians.

Pledging that Israel would "disengage" from "most of the Palestinian population" that lives in the West Bank, Mr Olmert said: "That will obligate us to leave territories under Israeli control today." This appears to mean that the boundaries of any Palestinian state which could emerge after such withdrawals would be hemmed in by an Israeli security presence in the Jordan Valley to the east as well as the three big settlement blocs of Ariel, Gush Etzion and Ma'ale Adumim to the west.

President George Bush has in effect endorsed the continued presence of those blocs within Israel in any final status deal with the Palestinians. Mr Olmert declined to give details of any plan for the Jewish settlements in the Jordan valley, saying: "It is impossible to abandon control of the eastern border of Israel."

In a separate interview, Shaul Mofaz, the Defence Minister, and another senior Kadima figure were quoted as saying that Israel would establish its "final borders" with or without a negotiated deal within the next two years. The polls still show Kadima under Mr Olmert as the clear favourites to win the election on 28 March.

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

Two members of the Fatah-linked al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades were killed yesterday in an Israeli Defence Force missile strike on their car in the Sabra neighbourhood in Gaza City. The move came in a series of targeted strikes on militants said to be involved in a continued spate of Qassam rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza. Three more rocket attacks were launched yesterday.

Ahmed Radad, a senior official in the Islamic Jihad militant group, was killed in a shootout with soldiers who had surrounded the house in Nablus where he was hiding. The army said he had fired on troops from inside the house, injuring two soldiers.

In an unrelated incident, it was disclosed that four masked Israelis from the Maon settlement near Mount Hebron stoned Palestinian children between six and eight years old as they made their way home from school over the weekend.