MAALEH ADUMIM, West Bank – Israeli bulldozers churned across a West Bank hill Thursday gouging a rough road needed for a government plan to build housing in an area it hopes to make a permanent part of the Jewish state, despite strong objections from both the Palestinian leadership and the Bush administration.
The road would link the sprawling Jewish settlement of Maaleh Adumim to Jerusalem, four miles away, and officials confirmed Thursday that they foresee thousands of new homes along the route — despite a provision of the internationally supported "road map" peace plan that calls for a halt to growth of Israeli settlements.
In another development, Israeli officials decided to allow Palestinian police to carry weapons again, which could help shore up the prestige of Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) and improve security in Palestinian areas.
Underlining growing lawlessness in those areas, masked gunmen forced three Palestinian Cabinet ministers to stop speaking at a news conference in the Gaza Strip (search) town of Beit Hanoun on Thursday and forced them to leave town.
Israel has already built an elaborate system of roads linking Jerusalem to Maaleh Adumim, where 31,000 Israelis live, and the latest project is seen as part of a government effort to win over hardline lawmakers opposed to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.
White House envoy Elliot Abrams met with Sharon on Thursday and was expected to restate U.S. opposition to the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Earlier this week, the State Department objected to a separate plan to build 600 more housing units inside the current boundaries of Maaleh Adumim.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) discussed the Maaleh Adumim plan at a meeting with Abrams earlier Thursday. Erekat called it a "land grab" meant to deny the Palestinians the state envisioned for them under the road map.
The U.S. administration has insisted Israel abide by the terms of that plan, which calls for an end to four years of violence and creation of a Palestinian state. In the first phase, the plan states that Israel "freezes all settlement activity."
Palestinians from nearby neighborhoods watched as bulldozers and mechanical shovels dug into the parched, rocky soil of a hill across from Maaleh Adumim. Palestinians, who claim all the West Bank, are concerned that roads like this would make it impossible for them to create a viable state.
At a shopping mall in the center of Maaleh Adumim, residents expressed strong support for the proposed new housing.
"I think it's great," said U.S. native Yitzhak Klein, 47, who moved to Maaleh Adumim in 1988. "It shows that Jewish settlement in Israel is expanding."
Israel's agreement to allow Palestinian police to carry arms came after a request by Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Jamil Tarifi, said Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
As part of his reform program, Qureia decided to deploy blue-uniformed police on the streets of Palestinian cities and towns. However, for the last three years, Israel had not allowed Palestinians to carry weapons in public in the West Bank.
The Israeli officials said Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the government would agree to rearming Palestinian police, but it would require a list of officers proposed to receive weapons and would have to approve each individually.
The Israeli decision could help Qureia boost his standing among his people. Israel was harshly criticized for taking no steps to help his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, who resigned after only four months in office.
Erekat said the Palestinian Authority had not yet been informed of the decision.
In the Gaza Strip, six masked gunmen dressed in headbands of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search) disrupted a news conference at the municipal building, taking over the stage and ordering the three Cabinet ministers to get out of town.
The intrusion was the latest act of rebellion by militants against the Palestinian Authority (search), which they accuse of being ineffective against Israel and corrupt toward their own people. Al Aqsa is linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.
The news conference was broken up shortly after Israeli troops pulled out of Beit Hanoun following a six-week operation aimed at stopping Palestinian militants from firing rockets at nearby Israeli towns. Six rockets exploded in Israel in the hours after the withdrawal.