JERUSALEM – Israel has the right to strengthen Jewish settlements in the West Bank (search), an Israeli Cabinet minister said Wednesday, a day after President Bush affirmed support for a peace plan that calls for a construction freeze in settlements.
Justice Minister Tsipi Livni (search) acknowledged there are serious differences between Israel and the United States over Jewish settlement expansion.
The issue of expansion was raised after Israeli officials last month confirmed plans to build 3,650 homes in the largest West Bank settlement, Maaleh Adumim (search).
In the West Bank, four Palestinians were wounded by fire from private Israeli security guards protecting a crew building Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank. Palestinian witnesses said the four were farmers on their way to their fields. The Defense Ministry said the four had attacked the crew and the guards' lives were in danger.
Livni told Army Radio there is agreement between Israel and the United States on continued construction within the built-up areas of the settlements.
"It seems that the debate is more over whether Israel can expand the perimeters of these communities, and certainly from an American viewpoint, as well, Israel can build within them," she said. "There apparently will be disputes with the Americans over this."
Livni said that despite such differences, Israel should still be able to "strengthen" settlements.
The planned Maaleh Adumim expansion is especially contentious because it would link the settlement to east Jerusalem, separating Arab neighborhoods of the city from the rest of the West Bank. The Palestinians hope to make east Jerusalem the capital of their future state.
A year ago, after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unveiled a plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, Bush issued a letter to Israel stating his support for its retention of major Israeli population centers in the West Bank under a final peace deal with the Palestinians.
But Washington has steadily opposed expansion of settlements.
"Our position is very clear that the 'road map' is important and the 'road map' calls for no expansion of the settlements," Bush said ahead of Sharon's visit at his Texas ranch next week.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat welcomed Bush's statement.
"I urge President Bush to exert every possible effort to stop the settlement activities and the wall in order to maintain and sustain his vision of a two-state solution," Erekat said. The "wall" refers to the separation barrier Israel is building along and inside the West Bank, incorporating Maaleh Adumim on the Israeli side.
Last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Israel's plan to expand Maaleh Adumim was "at odds with American policy" and could threaten peace with the Palestinians.
Livni said she does not expect sparks at the Bush-Sharon meeting over Maaleh Adumim because the U.S. president understands the significance of the Gaza pullout.
The Gaza plan has touched off fierce opposition within Israel. But having failed to block it through legislation, some settlers are now worrying that if they don't negotiate with the government, they will have little say in their fate.
In the West Bank city of Hebron, however, Jewish settlers pelted Israeli soldiers and police with rocks and eggs Wednesday as the troops put up a wall to protect a Palestinian home from settler attack. Settlers also stoned several Palestinians, witnesses said.
About 500 Jewish settlers, many of them extremists, live in the middle of Hebron, a city of 130,000 Palestinians.
The house, which overlooks the Jewish enclave of Avraham Avinu in downtown Hebron, was emptied on Israeli army orders shortly after the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence in September 2000. Police have maintained a regular guard there since a Supreme Court ruling reversed the army order, allowing Palestinians to return to the building. It is not inhabited yet.
Settlers, many of them young children, tried to block construction of the concrete wall by sitting astride it before being dragged away by troops and police. Two women settlers were detained and a third was slightly injured in a scuffle with soldiers, said police spokesman Shlomi Sagi.
A Palestinian who had been stoned also scuffled with soldiers and police. He was wrestled to the ground, handcuffed, then taken away in an armored jeep.
A meeting between settlers and Sharon on Tuesday — the first in months — would relocate many of the Gaza settlers to Israeli communities along the Mediterranean coast, about 12 miles north of Gaza.
The plan would require overhauling the government's earlier compensation program, which allocated about $230 million to be divided among settlers, a spokesman for the government's withdrawal agency said. Some government officials have said the overall cost of the pullout could reach $1 billion.
Vice Premier Shimon Peres said Israel would ask the United States for money to help with the withdrawal. Rice said Tuesday that she was not ready to commit the United States to foot part of the bill.