The Middle East peace process was marred yesterday by fresh violence on the Lebanese border and an admission from the Israeli government that it will provide new services to illegal settlement outposts it pledged to dismantle under the "road-map" peace plan.
Hezbollah guerrillas shelled Israeli positions in a disputed southern Lebanese border area for the first time in two months, triggering Israeli air strikes and artillery fire. The army said one soldier was lightly wounded.
The attacks came as Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, reaffirmed Israel's determination to press ahead with construction of its vast barrier in the West Bank, in defiance of US and international pressure. "The security fence is not a political border. The fence is an additional means of preventing terror. We will continue building it," Mr Sharon told a group of European parliamentarians in Jerusalem.
At the Aqaba summit in June, Mr Sharon promised to take down illegal outposts built by Jewish extremists in occupied territory since he came to power. But yesterday the Israeli Defence Ministry confirmed it is to provide eight of the outposts with new services including lighting, school buses and tougher security from the Israeli army. Many believe this is the first step towards legalising the outposts and giving them official status.
Yesterday's move, in direct contravention of the peace plan, has strengthened the impression that Israel is now openly ignoring the road-map, which was personally backed by President Bush.
A few weeks ago, Mr Sharon's government agreed plans for a controversial new "separation fence" to cut deep into the West Bank so the large settlement of Ariel, and a few other established settlements, could be on the "Israeli" side. That was despite US pressure for the fence not to deviate from the Green Line, the internationally recognised border between Israel and the West Bank. Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's National Security Adviser, said the fence looked like an attempt to create a new de facto border.
Yesterday's move suggests that the Israeli Prime Minister is determined to hold on to as much of the occupied West Bank as possible. Mr Sharon also appears to be ignoring the pressure from a US administration too tied up in its own increasingly difficult occupation of Iraq to get involved in Israel.
Jewish settlements in the occupied territories remain one of the biggest obstacles to peace. They occupy large parts of the remaining 22 per cent of British-mandate Palestine, where the Palestinians want to set up the independent state they were promised by President Bush and in the road-map.
The outposts were built without Israeli government permission and are illegal under Israeli as well as international law. While the larger established settlements are effectively big towns of permanent buildings, surrounded by high fences and guarded by the Israeli army at vast expense, the outposts are usually just a few caravans and portable buildings set up on remote hilltops by Jewish extremists. At Aqaba, Mr Sharon promised to dismantle the outposts, and a few highly staged evacuations, complete with punch-ups between settlers and Israeli soldiers, ensued. But only seven were dismantled out of a total of 104. Since then five new outposts have been put up, Peace Now, an Israeli peace group that monitors the settlements, said. Now eight of the outposts, Mitzpe Kramim, Migron, Neve Erez, Haresha, Pnei Kedem, Ibei Nahal, Asahel and Shirat Hayam, will get government services.
Mr Sharon has always been politically allied to the ideological settlers, and in the wake of the Oslo accords he urged the settlers to seize the hilltops before a peace deal could be agreed. The decision to provide services to the outposts comes after the Israeli government issued tenders for hundreds of new houses in existing settlements, in direct contravention of the road-map, which calls for a freeze on settlement building.
¿ Mr Sharon said for the first time in public yesterday that Israel has no intention of killing the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat despite the Israeli government's vow to remove him from power. There was an international outcry last month after Mr Sharon's deputy, Ehud Olmert, said that killing Mr Arafat was an option.
"I don't see any plans to kill him although the man is responsible for the deaths of thousands of mostly civilians,'' Mr Sharon told European parliamentarians in Jerusalem.
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