Jewish settlements to expand

Delivering his first address to parliament since withdrawing troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip after a costly 38-year presence, the prime minister said the onus was now on the Palestinians to make painful concessions towards peace.

“The Palestinians must understand that only a determined fight against terrorism, including the dismantling of its organisations, will ensure the calm to which we all aspire,” he said.

Mr Sharon’s speech at the start of the parliament’s winter session was approved by a narrow majority of MPs, with 51 in favour, 48 against and one abstention.

Eleven Palestinians have been killed in army operations and air strikes since a suicide bombing killed five Israelis last Wednesday in a bloody week in the Middle East conflict.

Disarm terrorists

“The entire international community is united in its demand that the
Palestinian Authority fulfill its obligations, disarm terrorist organisations and prevent attacks on Israel,” Mr Sharon charged.

“It is clear to everyone this is the only way to reach a settlement between us and the Palestinians. The government’s objective is to implement the roadmap,” he said.

The peace plan, drafted by the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States, has made next to no progress since its launch in 2003.

Although the Gaza pullout raised hopes of a breakthrough in the stuttering peace process, that optimism has evaporated amid the persistent violence.

Despite quitting Gaza, Mr Sharon has repeatedly pledged that there will be no let-up in plans to expand Jewish settlements in parts of the West Bank and in the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967 and later unilaterally annexed.

“My government’s development projects include not only the Galilee, Negev and Jerusalem, but also the large settlement blocs, the Jordan Valley and the Golan,” Mr Sharon told MPs in his address.

The roadmap demands a freeze to all Jewish settlement activity in the occupied territories.

Mr Sharon said Israel had “no choice” but to strike at “those who foment terrorism” in the face of Palestinian attacks and calls from hardline leaders like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for it to be “wiped off the map.”

He also vowed to press on with construction of the controversial separation barrier which Israel is building through the West Bank, despite a ruling by the International Court of Justice that parts built on occupied land are illegal.

Jewish settlements

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat said Mr Sharon’s call to develop Jewish settlements was the very antithesis of peace.

“We are asking the international community to pressure Israel to stop all violations, aggression and settlement activity,” Mr Erakat told AFP.

“Final status negotiations are the only way. Peace and settlement activity are incompatible.”

Since Israel’s withdrawal Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas has repeatedly called on militants in the Gaza Strip to disarm but he has insisted that he can only do so by negotiation for fear of provoking a civil war.

Thousands of Palestinian mourners on Monday buried two militants from Islamic Jihad shot dead by Israeli forces during a West Bank operation after the militant group claimed Wednesday’s suicide bombing.

Dozens of masked gunmen fired volleys of bullets into the air and called for the killings to be avenged.

The Palestinian interior ministry said the killings “threaten the quiet understanding which the Palestinian leadership and people want to protect.”

Ministry spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khussa accused Israel of refusing to end the cycle of violence because it was reluctant to resume peace talks.

Palestinian security forces were working daily to stop attempted rocket attacks but continued Israeli attacks were a complication, he said.

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