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Israel to Boost Settler Numbers in Golan - Minister (REUTERS) By Mark Heinrich JERUSALEM, ISRAEL Additional reporting by Maia Ridberg and Allyn Fisher-Ilan 12/31/03 04:43 PM ET) Source: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=4062423
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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel disclosed plans Wednesday to expand Jewish settlement in the Golan Heights captured from Syria in the 1967 war, infuriating Damascus soon after President Bashar al-Assad proposed reopening peace talks.
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Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, running the right-wing Israeli Cabinet´s settlement committee, said the plan aimed to underline that the Golan "is an integral part of Israel" before any negotiations for its return demanded by Syria.
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A senior official close to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon denied the plan was a "political message" to rebuff Assad or prejudge dialogue on the Golan, insisting "agricultural and tourist development" was the goal.
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But Damascus saw it as a maneuver to make Israel´s control over the strategic plateau irreversible. "Israel is deluded that it can achieve something by relying on power and occupation," Deputy Foreign Minister Isa Daweesh told Reuters.
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"The new Israeli steps ... block the way to any inclination or initiative to push matters in the direction of achieving a just and comprehensive peace in the region," the official Syrian Arab News Agency quoted a government spokesman as saying.
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Israel´s main daily Yedioth Ahronoth said the $62 million plan would double the Golan´s 18,000 settler population within three years. But an Agriculture Ministry spokesman said "only" 900 families would be settled -- a roughly one-third increase.
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Israel´s opposition left bemoaned the plan as another ill-timed blow to flagging regional peace efforts, saying it would encourage Syria to keep supporting Palestinian militants fighting Israel.
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Expanding settlements in the Golan would add to other steps Israel has taken to cement its grip on lands occupied in 1967 -- in the same way as a barrier it is building in the West Bank would incorporate settlements that Sharon has vowed never to relinquish under any peace deal.
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A U.S.-backed "road map" plan for defusing a Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, two other territories Israel occupied in 1967, has been torn by persistent violence.
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A blast in downtown Tel Aviv Wednesday was initially reported to be a bombing by Palestinian militants. But police said it was a false alarm and Israel Radio blamed a tire blowout.
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In Burdus village, Israeli forces trying to quell a protest against the West Bank barrier shot and wounded 10 Palestinian and one Israeli protesters and arrested a Swedish lawmaker and three other foreigners.
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Army radio later said Interior Ministry officials had decided to deport the four foreigners -- a step rarely taken in the past when a foreign politician was involved in protests.
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A senior Israeli official said the point of the Golan plan was to develop the thinly populated highland, which Israel annexed in 1981 -- a move condemned internationally -- and which is now given over mainly to agriculture and nature reserves.
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"This was not intended as a message to Syria. This program has been misused and slanted and twisted, taken out of context for internal political purposes," the official said.
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Sharon´s coalition comprises his right-wing Likud party and ultra- nationalist allies who broadly oppose major handing back of territory on security and religious grounds.
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Some 20,000 Druze also inhabit the Golan. Israel and Syria have no diplomatic relations and remain in a state of war.
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Syria has demanded that Israel hand back the Golan and other occupied lands as the price for peace with the Arab world. Assad urged Washington in a New York Times interview to help revive peace talks that collapsed in early 2000.
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But Israeli officials dismissed the offer as a ploy to relieve U.S. pressure on Damascus over accusations, which it denies, that it harbors militants menacing U.S. interests.
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Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan offered in an interview with Israeli television Wednesday to help mediate Israeli-Syrian talks, saying he had good ties with all Mideast nations. (Additional reporting by Maia Ridberg and Allyn Fisher-Ilan) (© Reuters 2003 12/31/03)
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