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Israel Digs in on Settlements; Peace Hopes Slip (REUTERS) By Timothy Heritage JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 07/31/03 01:02 PM ET) Source: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=3197789
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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel announced plans on Thursday to build new homes at a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip in defiance of a U.S.- backed peace plan, just a day after President Bush said the initiative was on track.
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The Palestinians said the announcement of a tender for 22 new homes in the Neweh Dekalim settlement was a blow to the peace "road map" and undermined efforts to rebuild trust after 34 months of Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
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"This is a big challenge to everything the peace process built," Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat said. "Israel still insists on destroying the road map because they choose the settlements over the peace."
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In a further blow to cautious peace hopes fueled by a recent lull in violence under a three-month truce announced by Islamic militants, Israel and the Palestinians failed to agree on a handover of two West Bank cities to the Palestinians.
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A riot by Palestinian inmates at a jail in southern Israel, put down by Israeli police using tear gas and water cannon, also underscored the growing tensions as peace efforts stall.
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Bush has met both the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers in Washington in the past week to try to press on with the road map. He said on Wednesday: "I think we´re making pretty good progress in a short period of time."
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But enthusiasm is fading in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, where Israeli military and defense officials are becoming increasingly gloomy.
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"I instructed the military to be ready for another outbreak of terror. This is inevitable and will be worse than what came before, if the terror infrastructures are not dismantled," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said in a speech.
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DISPUTE OVER SETTLEMENTS
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The Israel Lands Authority said the Defense Ministry had approved the issue of a tender to build 22 housing units in Neveh Dekalim, one of about 150 Jewish settlements across the West Bank and Gaza.
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The road map calls for Israel to freeze "all settlement activity" but the Israeli government says existing settlements should be allowed "natural growth" within their boundaries.
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The international community views all Jewish settlements on occupied territory as illegal. Israel disputes this.
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Mofaz and Palestinian Security Affairs Minister Mohammed Dahlan had hoped to reach an agreement to hand over two West Bank cities to the Palestinians during overnight talks.
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A source close to Israel´s government said Dahlan had asked Mofaz to withdraw troops from Ramallah, base of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and one of the West Bank cities Israel reoccupied last year after a wave of suicide bombings.
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Mofaz offered instead to hand the cities of Jericho and Qalqilya over to Palestinian security but Dahlan refused this.
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The two ministers failed to make any progress on a release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, a gesture the Palestinians consider vital to progress on the road map.
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The riot by Palestinian prisoners at a high security prison in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon was not connected to the Palestinian demands, but it will have alarmed Israeli authorities who fear a prisoners rebellion over the issue.
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Police used tear gas to break up the riot which began when guards tried to search a cell after finding a map of the jail on a prisoner, prompting fears of an escape. Twenty prisoners and 15 prison guards suffered from tear gas inhalation.
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Mistrust runs deep on several issues, including a barrier which Israel is building in the West Bank. Israel says it is needed to stop suicide bombers but the Palestinians say it grabs territory they want for their independent state.
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Israel says progress is possible only if the Palestinians crack down on militants. The Palestinians have rejected the calls, saying a crackdown would start civil war. (© Reuters 2003 07/31/03)
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