JERUSALEM – The Palestinian leader criticized Israel and indirectly the United States over Jewish settlements Sunday, and Israel's defense minister warned he would send troops into Gaza to seize Palestinian anti-aircraft missiles — the latest threats to efforts to expand a truce into lasting peace.
Incensed over a repeat of U.S. support for Israel retaining main settlement blocs in the West Bank in a peace deal, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) did not name the United States, but his target was clear.
"Any talk of settlements that is not a discussion of stopping them is unacceptable," Abbas said. "Here I'm talking about the discussions of annexing settlement blocs. This is unacceptable because this affects final status issues."
The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank (search).
The issue resurfaced over the weekend with a leaked Foreign Ministry document that quoted U.S. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer as saying the United States did not support Israel keeping West Bank settlements. Kurtzer angrily denied the report, repeating a statement from President Bush that a peace settlement would have to take into account Israel's main settlement blocs.
The leak came against the background of reports that Israel plans to expand the largest one, Maaleh Adumim, next to Jerusalem, by building 3,500 new homes.
In April, during a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search), Bush said he understood that some West Bank Jewish settlements would remain in place.
"In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return" of the West Bank, Bush wrote in a letter.
Kurtzer and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice repeated the Bush formula, but U.S. officials also criticized the Maaleh Adumim expansion plan, which would fill the last vacant patch around Jerusalem, cutting off the Arab section from the West Bank with Jewish neighborhoods. Palestinians want east Jerusalem as the capital of their independent state.
At a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Sharon admitted that the Bush administration still opposes expanding settlements.
"The United States differentiates between keeping settlement blocs and continuing building in the settlements at this time," Sharon said, according to participants. "They have been opposed to this since 1968."
Sharon's comments came on the eve of a parliamentary vote on calling a referendum over his plans to pull out of Gaza and part of the West Bank. The vote Monday could be close, with parties maneuvering for position until the last minute, but it appeared that Sharon had a majority against holding the referendum, which he calls a delaying tactic that would delay or scuttle the withdrawal plan.
The settlement issue has been a major sticking point in attempts to implement the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which never got off the ground after Bush introduced it in 2003. But with a six-week truce holding for the most part, hopes have been raised that peacemaking can resume, based on the plan.
The initial stage requires Israel to halt all settlement construction and remove dozens of unauthorized outposts from the West Bank, while the Palestinians dismantle violent groups. Neither side has carried out those steps.
Instead of peace moves, the truce itself is teetering, with charges by Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz that Palestinians succeeded in smuggling Strela anti-aircraft missiles into Gaza through tunnels under the Egyptian border.
If true, the missiles could change the strategic picture, threatening Israeli military helicopters flying over Gaza. According to participants in the Cabinet meeting, Mofaz said, "Last week several Strelas were smuggled in by Palestinian military intelligence. If the Palestinians [police] don't get hold of the Strelas, we will."
Israel has refrained from raids into Gaza since Sharon and Abbas declared a truce on Feb. 8. Before that, Israeli forces went into Gaza several times a week, looking for militants and destroying tunnels.
Rejecting Mofaz's warnings, Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Shaath charged that Israel was trying to sabotage the truce.
"I hope this is not an indication of future Israeli acts of aggression against us," he said.
Mofaz also told the Cabinet that he postponed handing over Qalqiliya, the third of five Palestinian towns due to be transferred to Palestinian security. He charged that the Palestinians are not carrying out their security pledges in the first two, Jericho and Tulkarem.
A March 22 ban on the entry of Palestinians into Israel was to be lifted Monday, the military said. Israel sealed off the West Bank and Gaza as Jews prepared to celebrate the Purim holiday. Closure orders are a routine security measure for Jewish holidays.