JERUSALEM – The United States has turned up the pressure on Israel to stop expanding West Bank (search) settlements, Israeli officials said Sunday. In the Gaza Strip, military bulldozers began flattening former resort homes to prevent pullout opponents from occupying them.
The Israeli Cabinet (search), meanwhile, continued sweetening the pot in an effort to defuse widespread settler resistance to the evacuation. On Sunday, it approved new concessions to settlers who are to be uprooted this summer, including deeply discounted land in a prime coastal area not far from Gaza.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) told Israel during her visit last week that Washington would not accept new West Bank construction, and that it had to stop.
Israeli officials present at the meeting where Rice leveled the criticism said she did not threaten any particular penalty for settlement expansion but was displeased by construction she saw when traveling from Jerusalem to the West Bank town of Ramallah for meetings with Palestinian leaders.
Rice said the United States would not accept new conditions Israel is creating in its effort to influence a final peace deal, the officials said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of their positions.
The U.S. Embassy and Israeli Foreign Ministry refused to comment. But the scolding meshes with President Bush's criticism of settlement expansion after meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas last month.
In Gaza, Israeli military bulldozers began knocking down eight dilapidated seaside buildings Egyptians had used as vacation cottages before Israel captured Gaza in 1967. Pullout opponents had planned to bring reinforcements into the buildings near the Shirat Hayam settlement.
Young settler activists screamed at the soldiers, "Jews don't expel Jews!" and climbed on and under a bulldozer to block its path. They scuffled briefly with soldiers who dragged them away, and military officials said one Israeli civilian was slightly injured and taken to a hospital.
The area was declared a closed military zone for the planned demolition operation, military officials said. The zone is to remain closed until the demolition and rubble removal are complete, they said. They did not have a timetable for the operation.
The homes are near the derelict beachfront hotel in Gaza where hundreds of pullout opponents barricaded themselves last week. The opponents remained in the hotel Sunday.
Friction between the United States and Israel has surfaced over different readings of Bush's April 2004 statement that a peace settlement would have to take Israel's main settlement blocs into account.
Israel continues to build in its largest settlement, Maaleh Adumim, and other established West Bank communities and expropriate Palestinian land in annexed east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as capital of a future state.
Washington maintains that new construction on land the Palestinians claim for a future state violates the terms of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which Washington hopes to revive after Israel pulls out of the Gaza Strip and four northern West Bank settlements this summer.
The long-stalled plan calls on Israel to freeze all settlement activity, while requiring the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups. Neither side has fulfilled its obligations.
After meeting with Abbas last month, Bush cautioned that "Israel should not undertake any activity that contravenes road map obligations or prejudice final status negotiations with regard to Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem."
Rice visited the region to promote coordination between Israel and the Palestinians on the pullout. All sides recognize that without coordination, Palestinian militants are liable to attack withdrawing settlers and the security forces evacuating them, to create the impression that Israel is being driven out.
Clashes between the two sides have escalated in recent weeks. A second Israeli teenager wounded last week by Palestinian gunmen near the West Bank city of Hebron died Sunday, hospital officials said.