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Israel claims more Palestinian land

ISRAEL has taken control of a large chunk of land near a prominent West Bank settlement, paving the way for the possible construction of 2,500 settlement homes, officials said yesterday in a new challenge to Middle East peace efforts.

Successive Israeli governments have continued to break promises to the United States to halt settlement expansion, which Washington considers an obstacle to peace.

Ongoing expansion is likely to create friction not only with the Palestinians, but with US President Barack Obama, who wants to get involved in the peace efforts, and his Middle-East envoy, George Mitchell, who has long pushed for a settlement freeze.

The composition of Israel's next government is not clear yet following inconclusive elections last week. However, right-wing parties are given a better chance to form a ruling coalition, with hardline leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm.

Netanyahu supports settlement expansion and has dismissed peace talks with the Palestinians as a waste of time, saying he would focus instead on trying to improve thePalestinian economy.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has dismissed Netanyahu's approach and his aides said recently that peace talks can only resume after a settlement freeze.

At the center of the latest expansion plans is Efrat, a settlement of about 1,600 families south of Jerusalem.

The mayor of Efrat, Oded Revivi, said the Israeli military designated 172 hectares near Efrat as so-called state land two weeks ago at the end of a lengthy appeal process. He said nine appeals were filed by Palestinian landowners, adding that eight were rejected and one was upheld.

Revivi said Efrat plans to build 2,500 homes on that land but that several steps of government approval would still be needed before construction could start - a process that could take years. Eventually, Efrat is to grow to a city of 30,000 people, he said.

The settlement is situated in one of the three major settlement blocs that Israel expects to hold on to in any final peace deal.

Abbas warned that continued settlement expansion would cripple peace talks.

"We oppose settlement activity in principle and if the settlement activity doesn't stop, any meetings will be worthless," Abbas said.

Nearly 290,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements now - 95,000 more than in May 2001 when Mitchell first called for a settlement freeze. At the time, he led a fact-finding mission to Israel and the Palestinian territories to find a way to end months of violence.


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