RAMALLAH, West Bank – Senior Palestinian officials on Thursday asked visiting U.S. envoys to help block the expansion of the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank, warning that the planned construction would cut off east Jerusalem -- the Palestinians' intended capital -- from territory they seek for a future state.
The envoys, National Security Council (search) official Elliott Abrams and David Welch, assistant secretary of state for the Near East, had asked Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) on Wednesday about the planned expansion of the Maaleh Adumim settlement, located five kilometers (three miles) east of Jerusalem. Israel plans to build 3,500 more homes in Maaleh Adumim, driving a wedge between east Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) told Abrams and Welch he expected Washington to take a clear position against Israeli settlement expansion plans.
"The United States knows the details, and the dangers of such plans for the road map and President Bush's vision of the peace process," Qureia's office quoted him as saying, referring to the internationally-backed "road map" peace plan that envisions the creation of a Palestinian state.
Qureia added that a Palestinian ministerial committee had been formed to ensure a smooth takeover when Israel pulls out the Gaza Strip this summer.
However, he called the withdrawal itself a unilateral Israeli decision that did not require coordination with the Palestinians. It was not immediately clear if Qureia was ruling out such coordination, which Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has said he favors.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the envoys expressed U.S. opposition to the plan to build 3,500 housing units around Maaleh Adumim, "but we told him that is not enough," calling for U.S. pressure on Israel to halt all construction in settlements and the Israeli separation barrier along and in the West Bank.
U.S. State Department officials have said the two envoys were seeking clarifications from Israel on the expansion plans -- language that implies criticism.
Last year, however, during talks with U.S. President George W. Bush, Sharon won support for keeping some large West Bank settlement blocs in an eventual peace deal.
Israeli lawmakers said Wednesday that Sharon's government has revived an old plan to build 3,500 new housing units around Maaleh Adumim to encircle traditionally Arab east Jerusalem with Jewish neighborhoods.
Palestinians object to any Israeli construction in the West Bank and warn that this could kill chances for peace by preventing the creation of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital. Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital.
Menachem Klein, an expert on Jerusalem affairs and adviser to the Israeli negotiating team at the failed Camp David peace talks in 2000, said the plan, known as E-1, calls for building houses on the last stretch of empty land between east Jerusalem and West Bank population centers, completing the ring of Jewish neighborhoods around east Jerusalem.
Labor lawmaker Yuli Tamir said she first began hearing of the revival of the E-1 plan a few weeks ago. "There is a feeling in the government that while the world is focused on Gaza, it is possible to build in the West Bank," she said.
Sharon plans to evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank over the summer, and settlers have vowed to disrupt the process. The Israel Prisons Service said Thursday that a special cell block had been prepared for opponents of the pullout plan should they be arrested during violent protests.
"The prisons service was instructed to prepare to receive 900 detainees during the disengagement process," spokesman Ofer Lefler said. "As prisons cannot be set up overnight we are already starting to prepare."
He said 21 activists arrested this week for blocking a highway with burning tires would shortly be brought to the new facility.
On Thursday, Gaza settlers had planned to herd sheep outside Sharon's office, under the slogan, "Sharon, we are not your sheep." However, the protest had to be postponed after a court, responding to a petition by an animal rights group, set conditions limiting the number of animals that could be used and ordering that they be transported to the site in padded vehicles and be given plenty of water.
"If they want to hold a sheep protest I recommend they dress up as sheep," the daily Yediot Ahronot's Web site quoted lawyer Kobi Sudri, representing "Let the Animals Live," as saying.
Sharon is himself a sheep farmer.
Settlers said a revised event would take place on Sunday.
The senior army officer for the West Bank told settlers there that the four settlements to be cleared would next month be declared off limits to non-residents. The decree, and a similar ban to be placed on the Gaza sites, is meant to prevent waves of protesters from flooding the settlements.
At a meeting on Wednesday, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh told settlers that the four West Bank settlements would be demolished after evacuation, said a participant, Debbie Drori.
In another development, the Palestinian Authority demanded an apology from Libyan ruler Muammar al-Qaddafi, who called Palestinians "stupid" in his speech at the Arab summit on Wednesday. "Qaddafi's words harmed the emotions of ... the Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims," the statement said. "We have enough headaches, and the Palestinian people do have not enough aspirin."
Qaddafi also called Israelis "stupid."