Qureia Asks Bush to Rethink Settlement Stance

The Palestinian prime minister asked President Bush (searchon Wednesday to reconsider his tacit recognition of some Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Israeli troops, meanwhile, killed nine Palestinians in fighting in the Gaza Strip (search), where gun battles in the town of Beit Lahiya trapped about 4,000 residents of a housing complex indoors for several hours.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (searchwrote to Bush, saying recent U.S. declarations that Israel could keep some of the West Bank and would not have to absorb Palestinian refugees contradict longstanding U.S. policy.

In 1991, Qureia wrote, the U.S. government stated that it "opposed unilateral actions that prejudge the outcome of permanent-status negotiations." Qureia said Bush is allowing Israel "to continue creating illegal facts on the ground" by expanding West Bank settlements.

Bush gave the assurances to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (searchduring a White House meeting last week.

At the time, Bush also endorsed Sharon's plan of "unilateral disengagement" from the Palestinians, including a withdrawal from Gaza and the evacuation of four small West Bank settlements. In exchange, Israel wants to keep and expand five large West Bank settlement blocs with tens of thousands of settlers.

Bush's backing boosted Sharon's chances of winning crucial approval for the plan in a referendum of his Likud Party on May 2.

The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, called the plan to withdraw from Gaza a positive step.

"If the Israelis leave Gaza, this is going to be a big deal in my mind," Bandar said, without referring to other elements of the Sharon's proposal. He made his comments after meeting with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in Washington.

Palestinian leaders are dismayed by Bush's new policy. Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and Gaza, along with the right of refugees and their descendants to return to Israel, if they so choose.

Bush defended his decision to support Sharon's territorial plan, saying it included the major concession of an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

"The whole world should have said, `Thank you, Ariel'," Bush told executives of more than 1,500 Associated Press-member newspapers at the cooperative's annual meeting in Washington. Instead, he said, "there was kind of silence, wasn't there?"

Bush's move on Israel drew angry responses throughout the Arab world, including from moderate U.S. allies Jordan and Egypt.

In new fighting in Gaza, Israeli troops raided the northern town of Beit Lahiya for the second straight day to stop a barrage of homemade rockets fired at nearby Jewish settlements.

Nine Palestinians were killed in Wednesday's fighting, including at least three civilians, among them a 15-year-old boy, hospital officials said. At least five of the dead were gunmen, and 27 people were wounded. It was the bloodiest day in Gaza since March 22, when Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin and 10 other Palestinians were killed.

The rocket salvos were retaliation for the weekend killing of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi by Israel. Hamas threatened "100 unique reprisals," and Sharon said other Hamas leaders would be targeted.

On Wednesday, troops surrounded a housing project in Beit Lahiya.

Bulldozers began demolishing a building under construction, witnesses said, while gunmen exchanged fire with troops.

About 4,000 residents of the housing complex were unable to leave their homes, and the fighting prevented some 3,000 middle and high school students from reaching school, residents said. Some of the teenagers joined in the fighting, throwing rocks at Israeli troops, they said.

Israeli attack helicopters periodically fired on the area, which is often used by militants as a launching ground for homemade missiles at the nearby Jewish settlements, witnesses said.

The Israeli army said its forces came under heavy fire from guns, anti-tank missiles and grenades. No Israeli casualties were reported.

Israel has that if rocket fire from Gaza continues after a withdrawal, it would keep hitting the territory. Sharon has said Israel would keep controlling the crossings in and out of Gaza, and that at least in the first stage, the Palestinians would not have use of an airport or seaport.

Writing to Bush, Qureia also said that such conditions "can never make the Gaza evacuation a historic opportunity, but rather a prison."