Vol. 5 Num 42 Thu. July 08, 2004  

Israel downplays US criticism over outposts

Israel played down embarrassing US criticism over its failure to remove settlement outposts yesterday as it looked to Washington to negate the impact of an upcoming world court verdict on its West Bank barrier.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said remarks at a press conference by Secretary of State Colin Powell in which he stated his "disappointment" at the lack of progress in removing the outposts did not reflect the overall tenor of the pair's earlier meeting.

"I met with Mr. Powell for over an hour and the question of the settlements was only briefly raised at the end of the discussion," Shalom told Israeli public radio from the United States.

Powell's remarks Tuesday "came after your reporter repeatedly asked him the question, until he finally succeeded in prying out that answer," the foreign minister added.

Powell had told reporters he had "explained to the minister (Shalom) that we have some disappointment in the rate of which outposts have been removed and the minister gave me assurances they are hard at work on that."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to tear down all outposts erected since he came to power in 2001 when he endorsed the US-backed roadmap peace plan last summer, which also called on Israel to halt all expansion of existing settlements.

The Israeli anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now has said that more outposts had been erected than dismantled since the roadmap was endorsed.

The outposts are generally set up as makeshift settlements with caravans but are often later "legalised" by the authorities.

The international community considers all Jewish settlements in the occupied territories illegal.

Powell's criticism came at a particularly awkward time for Shalom as he was in Washington to drum up US support to prevent a backlash against Israel if the International Court of Justice (ICJ) rules Friday that its West Bank separation barrier is illegal.

Israel has already made clear that it will ignore the court's verdict, which is merely advisory, but it wants Washington to help prevent a negative outcome snowballing into a censure motion at the UN Security Council.

Shalom said "all the American leaders, whether in government or Congress, have told us that they support the security fence.

"We are in agreement with the Americans on the fact that the (ICJ) ruling should not be used as a propaganda tool by the Palestinians," he added.

The United States has said that the current path of the barrier, which often cuts deep into Palestinian territory, is a "problem" but has argued that the world court is an inappropriate forum for the issue to be decided.

Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qorei was also expected to lobby for international opposition to the barrier at a meeting in his West Bank offices on Wednesday with representatives of the so-called Middle East quartet.

Diplomats from the United Nations, United States, European Union and Russia -- the quartet behind the troubled roadmap peace plan -- were all attending the talks along with Palestinian negotiations minister Saeb Erakat.

Qorei has branded the barrier "an apartheid wall" and says it must be torn down rather than merely have its route tinkered with.

On the ground, a wanted Palestinian militant was killed by an undercover Israeli army unit in Nablus' Balata refugee camp.

Palestinian sources named the man as Issam Mahameed, 27, and said he was a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades -- an armed group loosely affiliated to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah party.

Four army jeeps rolled into Balata immediately after the shooting and whisked away the undercover troops who were all dressed in civilian clothes, witnesses said.

The latest death brings the overall toll since the September 2000 start of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, to 4,162, including 3,166 Palestinians and 925 Israelis.

A Palestinian member of the Civil Defence checks the wreckage of a car belonging to members of the radical Palestinian group Hamas after it exploded in Gaza City yesterday. Three people, including a four-year-old boy, were wounded in the explosion. PHOTO: AFP