Abbas warns of “settlement time bomb”, sticks to demands

Arab countries urge U.S. to intensify efforts to reach settlement freeze

Israel resumes settlement construction in Jerusalem, says talks with U.S. reached stalemate

Israel’s withdrawal from Ghajar village is non-negotiable, says UNIFIL

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that he will not return to the negotiating table with Israel without a settlement freeze that includes annexed Arab east Jerusalem.

The Palestinian leader also hit out at US efforts to persuade Israel to agree to a more limited freeze applying only to the rest of the occupied West Bank in return for a raft of political and security benefits, saying he wanted to have nothing to do with such deal-making.

"If it does not encompass Jerusalem, in other words if there is not a complete freeze on settlement in all the Palestinian territories including Jerusalem, we will not accept it," Abbas told reporters after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

"If Israel wants to return to its settlement activities, then we can't go on. A settlement freeze must include all of the Palestinian territories and above all Jerusalem," Abbas said.

Direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians resumed on September 2 but collapsed three weeks later with the expiry of a 10-month Israeli freeze on settlement building in the West Bank.

Although that freeze did not apply directly to east Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quietly held off approving projects there for most of its duration to avoid the political fallout.

But faced with opposition from hardliners in his cabinet to any new settlement freeze, Netanyahu has said repeatedly that no restrictions will apply to construction in east Jerusalem.

In talks last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put together a package of incentives to get Netanyahu to accept a one-off 90-day freeze, including an additional 20 F-35 fighter jets, worth three billion dollars, and a pledge to block any international efforts to impose a peace deal on Israel.

But Abbas spoke out against the US diplomatic efforts. "We told the Americans that we wanted nothing to do with their deal-making. We reject the idea of linking these bargains to the resumption of negotiations," he said.

"If the issue is a matter of weapons for one side or another, then we don't accept it."

Abbas said there were still no firm proposals from Washington. "So far nothing official has come out of the US administration, either to us or to the Israelis, that we can comment on," he said.

After talks with Abbas last week, Arab League chief Amr Moussa said that as soon as the Palestinians received the US response, the bloc's follow-up committee would hold an emergency meeting to discuss its next step.

The League has given Washington until the end of this month to rescue the peace talks.

Abbas also held talks with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who has been brokering reconciliation talks between the Western-backed Palestinian leader's Fatah faction and the Islamist Hamas movement which controls Gaza.

"So far we have not reached an agreement with Hamas," Abbas said, accusing the movement of going back on some of its earlier bargaining positions.

"Despite all that... we will continue to hold a dialogue with Hamas at all levels until we restore Palestinian national unity," he added.

The two factions have been at loggerheads since Hamas seized Gaza in June 2007, ousting forces loyal to the Palestinian president and effectively restricting his authority to the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The Palestinians may reject resuming peace talks with Israel due to proposed U.S. incentives to Israel, a Palestinian official said.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee, said the Palestinians will reject any position "that leads to legitimizing the Israeli settlement activities after a certain time."

Abed Rabbo said the incentives, which include supplying Israel with F-35 war jets, have an anti-peace impact and boost Israel's aggressive trend.

The incentives "should not be linked to the political process and the attempts to make a just peace in the region," Abed Rabbo said.

The U.S. offer was meant to convince Israel to freeze settlement building in the West Bank for three months. Israel is still studying the proposal, which excludes Jerusalem.

The Arabs and the Palestinians will respond to the U.S. proposal after Washington agrees on it with Israel, Abed Rabbo added. "We don't intervene in the nature of the discussions between the Israeli and the American sides."

The Palestinians suspended participating in the U.S.-brokered peace negotiations in September, after Israel resumed building in the West Bank settlements.

Israel approved a plan for constructing 625 new housing units in East Jerusalem despite worldwide criticism on settlement construction in the disputed region.

The plan was initially approved by the Jerusalem District Planning Building Committee in 2008 but was put on hold due to several faults in the program. However, the problems have been solved and the committee approved the project.

The new 625 housing units will be built in the Pisgat Ze'ev neighborhood in East Jerusalem. On November 8, Israel's Interior Ministry announced the construction of 1,300 new housing units in East Jerusalem to expand the Har Homa neighborhood by 978 apartments and to build 320 new apartments in the Ramot neighborhood.

The plan was highly criticized and considered as a step back in the efforts to resume direct peace negotiations with Palestine.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the planning policy has not disrupted the peace process in the last 40 years.

Netanyahu added that in that period, Israel has built many projects in many parts of Jerusalem as the country considers the region not an occupied or disputed territory but as its capital city but it is not internationally recognized as such.

Palestine intends to make East Jerusalem its capital city.

U.S. President Barack Obama criticized the Israeli government regarding its Har Homa building plan as he believes that the action will not help the peace negotiations. He also expressed his concern on the lack of effort by both sides, Israel and Palestine, to resume peace talks.

On September 26, the Israeli government lifted its 10-month freeze moratorium on new settlement construction in the disputed West Bank area. In consequence, Palestine halted peace negotiations with Israel and demanded a new moratorium to continue the direct talks.

Israel seized the West Bank territories after the 1967 war, including Gaza and East Jerusalem. Since then, Israel has settled around 500,000 Jews in over 100 settlements in order to expand their presence in the Palestinian neighborhoods in the area. East Jerusalem has long been the target of such efforts as the oldest, historic ruins in the city lie under this area.

A tripartite meeting between Lebanon, Israel and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) took place last week to discuss the anticipated withdrawal from the northern part of the border village of Ghajar.

The meeting, held at the UNIFIL headquarters in the southern village of Naqoura, comes in the wake of media reports which claimed that the UN peacekeeping force had raised its alert level to “orange” out of fear its staff were under growing threat of attack from Hezbollah supporters.

UNIFIL denied the reports and maintain they have not stepped up precautionary measures despite escalating political tensions brewing in anticipation of the indictment from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), tasked with investigating the 2004 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and widely expected to accuse Hezbollah of complicity in the murder.

“We already have comprehensive security and protection measures in place and UNIFIL’s focus remains on its operations and the implementation of Resolution 1701,” UNIFIL spokesperson Neeraj Singh told The Daily Star.

“Lebanese authorities have the primary responsibility for law and order in UNIFIL’s area of operations including security of the UN installations and personnel.”

Earlier this month, the Israeli security cabinet approved the withdrawal from the northern part of Ghajar village as mandated under UN Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 summer war.

Israel, however, openly insists a pullout will only take place if UNIFIL secures total control of the village, which it fears may be infiltrated by Hezbollah members and used as a base to launch attacks into the country.

“[Israel intends] to pull out of the north side of the village and instate a regime there that would not allow the vacuum Hezbollah could use to take over the area,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the cabinet decision.

While UNIFIL has insisted “it is there and ready to provide all the support required by all the parties,” virtually no details about the mechanism of a pull out have been released and a public deadline remains to be set, although the various sides insist progress is being made.

“Both parties expressed their full support and commitment to work together with UNIFIL for the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701,” UNIFIL said in a statement following the tripartite meet.

The finalization of a withdrawal strategy is being hindered by other ongoing violations of Resolution 1701.

Breaches, which were thoroughly discussed during the meeting, include the near daily violation of Lebanese airspace by Israeli jets, that Israel claims are surveying the continued amassment of arms by Hezbollah, itself also a violation of 1701.

Some progress is thought to be being made on the demarcation of the UN-mandated Blue Line, which divides the Ghajar Village, and has largely been agreed upon as the border between the two countries.

Ghajar is historically considered part of the Syrian Shebaa Farms that were occupied by Israel during the 1967 war.

The territory was officially awarded to Lebanon in 2000 after Israel withdrew its troops from the remaining parts of the south following a 22-year presence in the country.