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Settlement Plan Disappoints Palestinians

Times Staff Writer

Palestinians reacted with dismay Monday to Israel’s announcement that it would build 3,500 more housing units in and near the West Bank’s largest Jewish settlement in apparent contravention of a U.S.-backed peace blueprint.

Meanwhile, after several days of delay and argument, Israel late Monday formally handed over the West Bank town of Tulkarm to Palestinian security control. Tulkarm is the second of five Palestinian towns and cities from which Israeli troops are pulling back under an agreement reached last month at a summit in Egypt.

The Tulkarm area is a stronghold of Palestinian militant groups, a factor that could pose a serious challenge for Palestinian forces policing it. The young bomber who blew himself up Feb. 25 outside a Tel Aviv nightclub, killing five Israelis, came from a village outside the town.

It was already well after dark when the hand-over agreement was finalized, but uniformed Palestinian police immediately began fanning out in the streets. The main Israeli checkpoint on the town’s edge was to be dismantled this morning.

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Palestinian rejoicing over the Tulkarm hand-over was dampened by word of the Israeli plan to substantially expand the settlement of Maale Adumim. The construction in the town of 30,000 people was first reported by the daily Yediot Aharonot newspaper Monday and later confirmed by Israeli officials.

Israel has long held that Maale Adumim, an American-style suburb with shopping malls, swimming pools and manicured lawns, is an integral part of nearby Jerusalem. The government made it official last week that the settlement would be on the Israeli side of a barrier being built in the West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he intends to retain Maale Adumim and other large West Bank settlement blocs close to Jerusalem in exchange for a scheduled withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer. But Palestinians view the latest expansion with particular distress, because it will bring Maale Adumim’s boundaries closer to East Jerusalem, which they claim as their capital.

The building project, they say, will not only cut East Jerusalem off from Palestinian communities in the West Bank, but will place a wide wedge of Jewish homes between the northern and southern West Bank. That would be a blow to Palestinian hopes for controlling contiguous territory to form a nation.

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Israeli officials said that the building plan, months in the making, had been approved by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and that Sharon signed off on it last week. They stressed that it still faced additional stages of administrative approval, such as drafting an environmental impact statement.

If it goes ahead, the building initiative would run counter to Israel’s commitments under the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, which calls for a freeze on settlement activity. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to address the details of the expansion plan, but said the Bush administration expected Israel to honor its obligations under the plan.

Palestinians said the construction, which could be completed before a new round of peace negotiations even begins, would prejudice the outcome of statehood talks.

“This project shuts the door to negotiations,” said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “If this project is carried out, it determines the future of Jerusalem by settlements, not talks.”

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Three other West Bank towns or cities -- Kalkilya, Ramallah and Bethlehem -- are to be handed over in coming weeks.

The first town transferred to Palestinian forces was Jericho last week. Even that exchange, which was largely symbolic since Israeli forces did not occupy the town itself, proved to be drawn out and complicated.

Tulkarm, which lies close to the boundary between the West Bank and Israel, is considered much more sensitive from a security standpoint.

In recent months, Israeli forces have remained mainly on its outskirts but have staged frequent raids inside the town to search for militants, particularly in the wake of last month’s Tel Aviv bombing.

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