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Settlements Are The Issue

Palestinian cabinet minister Nabil Shaath on Sunday ruled out a resumption of negotiations with Israel unless there was a halt to all settlement building on land Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

A militant Hamas leader released from a Palestinian prison in Gaza Sunday says the mainstream Palestinian leadership agrees now that armed conflict is the only way to deal with Israel.

Also in Gaza, Israeli forces briefly entered Palestinian territory and destroyed two police positions before withdrawing, Palestinians said.

The world is starting to realize that a freeze on settlement construction in occupied lands is necessary to reduce the violence and restart stalled peace talks, Shaath told a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Canada: Stop Settlements
Canadian Foreign Minister John Manley said Sunday, before a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, that Israel should stop settlement construction to help revive peace talks with the Palestinians.

Manley backed the Mitchell Commission's call on Israel to stop building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The commission is headed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell.

"Canada's position is consistent with the Mitchell report that the continuation of the settlements must stop," Manley told a news conference after a meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres. "That will be part of what needs to be done in order for the basis to move forward in a peace process."

Manley also urged Israel to accept an Egyptian-Jordanian proposal to end the bloodshed and renew peace talks. Israel has expressed objections to the proposal, including its demand that building in the settlements cease.

Manley met last week with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as part of his eight-day tour of the Middle East. He was scheduled to return home Monday.

(AP)

In the Gaza Strip, Israeli armored bulldozers also destroyed houses on the outskirts of a Palestinian town in what Palestinians said was the latest in a series of Israeli military incursions.

Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader who has been arrested repeatedly by Yasser Arafat's police, told The Associated Press that he was not questioned during his week in prison, and no charges were brought against him. He was detained after criticizing Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

I a telephone interview, Rantisi said that despite his arrest, Hamas and Arafat see eye-to-eye now. He charged that "the mentality of the Israelis is aggression against our people," and that Palestinians, including the Palestinian Authority, "believe that the only way for the Palestinians is to fight to defend their people, to defend their land."

Commenting on Rantisi's remarks, Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan, considered close to Arafat, said, "We can't be partners with the Israelis as long as their aggression continues."

Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat left for New York for talks with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the hardships endured by Palestinians as a result of the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the West Bank. Israel says limits on travel are needed to prevent attacks by Palestinian militants.

In Washington, a Palestinian official said details were being worked out for a meeting on Monday or Tuesday between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Palestinian negotiator Mahmoud Abbas, due in the United States for a medical checkup.

"The purpose of the meeting is definitely to try to restart the peace process and get out of the situation we are in now," Hassan Abdel Rahman, the Palestine Liberation Organization's Washington representative, told Reuters.

Peace in the Middle East was also raised by Pope John Paul in his weekly address in St Peter's Square. The Pope, making an impassioned appeal for peace in the region, told worshippers the fighting in the seven-month-old Palestinian uprising was "an absurd spiral of violence."

In the Gaza Strip, the latest Israeli incursion into territory transferred to Palestinian control under interim peace deals occurred in Rafah, a town near the Egyptian border, a Palestinian security spokesman said.

Earlier in the day, the army said Palestinians had thrown hand grenades at its troops patrolling the Egyptian frontier and that the soldiers returned fire.

Israel and the Palestinians have disagreed over which areas constitute Palestinian-ruled territory along the border with Egypt, but Israel has acknowledged it sent troops into Palestinian-ruled territory elsewhere in Gaza in recent weeks.

At his news conference, Shaath denounced Israeli settlement building as "...a crime, building illegally on occupied land."

"It's absolutely and utterly ridiculous that you are negotiating with your occupier to end his occupation in exchange for real peace...and allow him while negotiating a peaceful end, to deepen his occupation by force," he said.

Israel has built 145 settlements on lands it occupied in the 1967 war. Some 200,000 settlers live in the West Bank and Gaza, home to about three million Palestinians.

Settlements, at the heart of the Palestinian uprising, are illegal under international law. The two sides agreed in interim peace deals to keep them in place pending a final treaty.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, hosting his Canadian counterpart John Maney, said Israel intended to expand existing settlements to accommodate the natural growth of their populations.

"The further issues concerning the settlements should be negotiated in the framework of the negotiations between us and the Palestinians," Peres told reporters after their meeting.

Shaath said in Ramallah the Palestinians had erred by not insisting on halting settlement building in the negotiations that led to the interim accords with Israel.

"This time it's now or never. Israeli settlement policy has to stop...It's our precondition" for restarting peace talks, he said. Israel has said it cannot resume peace talks until the violence ceases.

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