Israel authorities feign negotiations while resuming construction of settlements in Jerusalem, banishing Arab deputies there

Abbas tells Mitchell partial solutions, Blair plan are rejected

Mubarak discusses recent developments of Mitchell’s efforts to reach peace

Splits within Israeli leadership menace Netanyahu government

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday called for international pressure on Israel to lift its three-year blockade on the Gaza Strip, a statement by his office said.

Abbas made his call during a meeting with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair who is serving as an envoy to the Quartet committee of Middle East peace players.

"Mr. Abbas requested obliging Israel to lift the Gaza siege completely according to international resolutions," the statement said.

The Palestinian president also said recent Israeli decisions to allow more goods into Gaza "were not the solution to end the suffering of the Palestinians there."

Demands on Israel to ease the siege have increased following its deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla on May 31.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said it will lift the ban on all civilian products but will keep restrictions on materials that have dual purposes.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians are in desperate need for reconstruction materials, especially cement and iron, to build houses that were damaged or destroyed during Israel's war in Gaza last year.

Palestinian President Abbas reiterated to U.S. peace envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell that the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip must be completely lifted, a senior Palestinian official said.

Mitchell arrived in Ramallah on Friday and immediately held a meeting with Abbas during which Abbas called on Mitchell to end the three-year Israeli blockade imposed on Gaza, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told a news briefing at the end of the meeting.

"In his talks with Mitchell, President Abbas focused on the basic points, mainly meeting the basic needs of the Gaza Strip population and to stop using these needs as swords directed at our people's necks," said Erekat.

Erekat added that President Abbas had also told Mitchell that the Gaza Strip products must reach the West Bank and vice versa, " and called on the U.S. and the international community to exert efforts to achieve it."

"For President Abbas, the blockade is a collective punishment and there is no justification to keep it. There are six commercial crossing points at Gaza Strip borders all of which should be reopened," said Erekat.

Abbas also told Mitchell that within the first three months of 2007, around 36,000 trucks loaded with products and goods entered the Gaza Strip, while in the last three months of this year, only 3,600 trucks were allowed.

"The question is not related to easing the blockade, this is not enough, President Abbas wants a 100 percent end of the blockade," said Erekat.

He also said that Abbas and Mitchell agreed to continue talks with the U.S. administration, adding that "there are contacts also with the European Union on this issue."

Asked about the Jewish settlement, Erekat said that Abbas discussed with Mitchell the recent Israeli decision to build 1,600 units in the settlement of Ramat Shalom in occupied East Jerusalem.

"Mitchell reiterated that the commitment given to the Palestinian side that there will be no construction of settlements is still valid and is not retreated," said Erekat.

The United States proposed a four-month proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians after it failed to bridge the gap of disputes between the two sides, following the Israeli decision to expand settlements.

Abbas on Tuesday urged Washington as the mediator in the Mideast peace process to intervene to block a controversial park project in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem.

“We reject such actions, which hinder any political progress,” he added.

Earlier, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he passed on a message from Abbas “to the American administration this morning, urging their direct intervention to revoke this Israeli order.”

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the Israeli announcement” of the plan which would lead to the razing of 22 Arab homes in the Silwan district of occupied East Jerusalem, Erekat told AFP.

Israel’s Jerusalem municipality on Monday approved plans for the development of an archaeological park in Silwan.

In the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, Abbas’ Western-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) condemned Israel’s park project as a deliberate Israeli attempt to obstruct the peace process.

The decision could hinder the fledgling US-mediated indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, said PA spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina.

“We reject and strongly condemn this decision, which is a return to the Israeli policy of placing obstacles in the way of US efforts to advance the indirect negotiations,” he told AFP.

“The US should take swift and urgent action against these Israeli provocations.”

The Palestinians reluctantly agreed to launch the indirect talks in May after months of shuttle diplomacy by US envoy George Mitchell, but said they would not move to direct talks without a complete Israeli settlement freeze. “Resuming direct talks requires progress from the Israeli side on issues we have submitted to the Israelis. If this progress happens, we would think of going back to direct talks,” Abbas said in Amman.

Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu blamed the Palestinians Tuesday for the absence of direct peace talks and insisted negotiations should resume right away “without delay and without preconditions.”

In a speech to fundraisers from the US and other countries, ahead of July 6 talks with President Barack Obama in Washington, Netanyahu claimed Israel “has made every effort to resume the peace talks.”

“The Palestinians, regrettably, have made every effort not to resume the peace talks,” Netanyahu said. “We should begin direct talks for peace now, without delay and without preconditions,” he added.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is in the US for talks with the Obama administration, criticized the move in Jerusalem, saying Israeli officials “are not displaying common sense or good timing, and not for the first time.”

Jerusalem municipality’s planning and building committee approved the so-called Gan Hamelech (King’s Garden) project, the Hebrew name for the area outside Jerusalem’s Old City known as Al-Bustan to its mostly Arab residents.

In March, Netanyahu asked the city to freeze the project to avoid sparking conflict in Jerusalem and further straining ties with the US amid a row over settlements.

The US expressed concern Monday about the move which it said “undermines trust” and could hinder the indirect talks.

“This is expressly the kind of step we think undermines trust that is fundamental in making progress to the proximity talks and ultimately in direct negotiations,” said State Department spokesman Philip Crowley.

Under the approved plan, 22 homes, out of 88 slated for demolition since 2004, would be demolished, while the other 66 would be legalized.

The area is now a crowded Arab neighborhood in a part of the city invaded by Israel in the 1967 war and occupied since then in a move not recognized internationally and in violation of numerous UN resolutions. The Palestinians have demanded the mostly Arab eastern part of the city as the capital of their future state, in accordance with UN Resolution 242 which called for the withdrawal of all Israeli forces from territory acquired during the 1967 war.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met Saturday with visiting U.S. Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell to discuss the developments of proximity negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel and situation in the Gaza Strip.

Mitchell briefed Mubarak on the U.S. efforts to revive the peace process and the outcome of his talks with Palestinian and Israeli officials before arriving in Egypt on Friday.

The U.S. envoy's visit to Egypt is a part of his regional tour meant to follow up the developments of the U.S.-brokered indirect Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.

The meeting also tackled efforts to lift the tight Israeli siege on Gaza Strip that has been in place since Hamas took control of the coastal enclave in 2007. Mitchell said President Mubarak voiced his deep concern over the situation in Gaza.

The Israeli government plans to ease restrictions on the entry of basic commodities and construction materials to the Strip, the envoy said. He expressed Washington's support for Israeli plans, saying the United States hopes these plans would be translated into action.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit said after the meeting that Egypt is holding contacts with different parties concerned, including the United States, European Union, Israel and the Palestinian National Authority, to lift the siege and secure unfettered access to humanitarian aid.

Abul-Gheit also said that Egypt has no intention to amend the Palestinian national reconciliation document it proposed to end the inter-Palestinian rifts.

"Amendments to the reconciliation paper are totally unacceptable regardless of what they are," Abul-Gheit said, urging Hamas to sign the document, which was already signed by Fatah unilaterally.

"And then they (Hamas) could debate directly any reservations they have with the Palestinian National Authority," the minister said.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat denied on Saturday reports that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had accepted a reconciliation plan proposed by Islamic Hamas movement to end the Palestinian division.

Meanwhile, a top Israeli official scolded local officials on Tuesday for giving preliminary approval to a plan calling for the demolition of 22 Palestinian homes, in an echo of past stumbles over Jewish development in East Jerusalem.

The official, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, was on a visit to Washington, where tensions have run high over Jewish housing in East Jerusalem. A member of the Labor Party, the only centrist element in a right-leaning government, Mr. Barak seemed annoyed by the move, which threatened to upset the indirect, American-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

In a statement released by his office, Mr. Barak said that the municipal authorities were "not demonstrating any common sense or any sense of timing -- and it is not the first time."

The Israeli government is still repairing damage done to its relations with the United States when the Interior Ministry announced, during a visit by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in March, approval for the building of over 1,000 homes for Jews in East Jerusalem.

In Washington on Tuesday, P. J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, expressed concern that the proposed plan could compromise the new peace negotiations. "This is expressly the kind of step that we think undermines trust that is fundamental to making progress in the proximity talks," he said.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war, a move that was not recognized internationally. Palestinians predominate in the area and claim it as their future capital. They view efforts by Israel to increase the Jewish presence there as hostile acts intended to thwart any future division of the city.

The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, speaking during a trip to Jordan on Tuesday, criticized the building plan and called on the United States to help block it.

Jerusalem, with its biblical resonance and deep historical roots and symbolism, remains the most volatile issue between Israel and the Palestinians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in keeping with his predecessors, has held firmly that Jerusalem will remain united as Israel's capital.

But his office, apparently in a bid to stave off another confrontation with the White House, issued a statement playing down the plan. "We are talking about a process at its very initial stages," the statement read. "The plan is still up for debate and comments from the city hall's local council and then in the district committee of the Interior Ministry, where the stance of the local residents will be heard."

The statement also expressed the desire that a solution be found that would satisfy local residents.

Jerusalem's mayor, Nir Barkat, rejected the criticism, including Mr. Barak's comments.

The city's plan, which he has been spearheading, is to raze 22 out of 88 homes that the city said were built illegally on public land in the neighborhood of Silwan, nestled in a valley just below the stone walls of the Old City. Once the homes are cleared in the area called Al Bustan, Mr. Barkat has said there will be room for a large archeological park, about 1,000 new apartments for local residents, shopping and boutique hotels.

He sees the package as an important tourist draw that will be good both for local residents and Jerusalem.

He envisions the creation of 1,000 more apartment units through the city's approval of four-story buildings where currently only two stories are allowed. Other plans approved in a preliminary step on Monday would legalize a seven-story apartment building in Silwan where Jewish settlers live.