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Europe

Israel Plows US Demand on Settlements

Two days after rebuffing European diplomats, Sharon ignores a plea from the United States.

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It's not getting any easier

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, fresh off a tiff with European diplomats, made a point Tuesday of ignoring a U.S. plea to stop building Jewish settlements in Arab territories.

This is the latest in a rash of spats between Sharon and the would-be peace brokers.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s demand on Monday that “settlement activity must stop” was the strongest language yet issued by the new administration in Washington regarding the settlements. It came in a speech billed as a “major policy address.”

But Sharon’s retort was equally sharp. Israeli tanks and a bulldozer demolished some 20 Arab-owned houses in the Gaza Strip, and Sharon’s government announced intentions to build permanent concrete settlements in Hebron, within the contested areas to which Powell referred.

The Israeli government did not link the violence to Powell’s demand. Officially and generally, Sharon welcomed Powell's address, and he said the smashing of houses occurred when Israeli forces came under fire during a raid against smugglers.

Just two days before, Sharon had pointedly refused to accept European diplomats’ suggestion that he drop his demand for “seven days of calm.”

The prime minister has a long-standing demand that Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority stop all violence in the Palestinian territories, as well as related terrorist bombings within Israel, before starting any substantive negotiations.

Diplomatic loss

The pair of Israeli refusals puts European and American diplomats at a loss for a confident diplomatic starting point in the region, at a time when relations with many Islamic countries are already strained.

Officials in Washington and European capitals are keen to engineer a lull in Middle East tensions, to shore up Islamic support in their “anti-terror coalition”, but they do not know how.

Israel’s decision to build new permanent settlements yielded a familiarly dark warning from the Palestinian Authority.

Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, a senior aide to President Arafat, told Reuters that “security, stability and ceasefire cannot be sustained while this creeping, cancerous settlement is continuing."

Nearly 900 Palestinians and Israelis have been killed in clashes and terrorist attacks since the two sides fell out over failed peace negotiations last year.

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