Israel denies reports that city is to expand

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM - Israeli officials disputed an Israeli news report yesterday that the government planned to build thousands of homes at the edge of a major West Bank settlement outside Jerusalem - an expansion that would bridge the two cities but run afoul of the U.S.-backed "road map" to peace.

A spokesman for Israel's Housing Ministry said the plan was at least 10 years old and that the government was not acting to build houses in the immediate future.


The Maariv newspaper reported that the government put the land - a 3,750-acre parcel between Jerusalem and the Jewish settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim - under state ownership several months ago, making it eligible for construction. The newspaper said the Housing Ministry, which oversees settlement development, quietly had begun preparing the site for construction by building the first roads and planning sewers and sidewalks.

The U.S. government opposes new settlement construction. Under the stalled peace plan, Israel is to freeze settlement activity and tear down all settlement offshoots, known as outposts, erected since March 2001.


This week, the U.S. State Department reiterated its opposition to settlement expansion after news reports that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had approved construction of 600 homes in Ma'aleh Adumim, a suburban city of about 30,000 that is the largest settlement in the West Bank. Israeli officials said that plan was not new and that most of the homes had been built.

In response to yesterday's report, a Housing Ministry spokesman said plans for new homes that would fill the gap between Ma'aleh Adumim and Jerusalem had existed since the early 1990s. He said Israel had no immediate plans to build houses there - which would first require government approval of detailed plans.

"These are only general plans, not operative ones," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Settlement expansion was on the agenda yesterday as Elliott Abrams, a senior U.S. envoy, met here with Palestinian and Israeli officials.

Sharon told Abrams there were no plans for new housing between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim, according to Israeli media reports.

Palestinian leaders say expanding West Bank settlements hurts chances for negotiating a peace deal by carving up land on which the Palestinians hope to form an independent state.

In other developments yesterday, Palestinian residents in the Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun returned to homes many had fled during the Israeli military offensive. Israeli soldiers pulled out early yesterday in what the military called a redeployment of forces.

Three Palestinian Authority Cabinet ministers who appeared in Beit Hanoun had to cut short a news conference after they were ordered to leave by members of the militant Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. The militants criticized the ministers for not appearing during the incursion.


Also, Israeli officials agreed last night to allow Palestinian police to resume carrying weapons in some places, according to Israeli news reports.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.