Vol. 5 Num 912 Wed. December 20, 2006  

Israel to step up Golan settlement building

Israeli Interior Minister Roni Bar-On said yesterday he intended to accelerate housing projects on settlements in the occupied Golan Heights, defying recent Syrian calls for peace talks.

"I made the decision after I toured the Golan Heights where I saw that the Syrians were accelerating the construction of houses in the town of Quneitra" on the border with the Jewish state, Bar-On told army radio.

"Instead of leaving this area in ruins as they had for decades, the Syrians want to populate the area which means this is more than a war front for them," he added.

A leader of the Golan local council, Sami Bar-Lev, said the construction of 400 additional homes is under way in Katzrin, the largest Jewish settlement where about 7,500 people live.

Israel captured the strategic Golan Heights plateau from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and disputes over the return of the territory contributed to the collapse of peace talks in 2000.

On Monday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected renewing peace talks despite a call by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"We do not have the impression that there is currently a basis for opening negotiations with Syria," Olmert told a joint media conference after talks with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In an interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica last Friday, Assad called on Israeli and US leaders to negotiate with Damascus to revive peace talks which have been frozen for almost seven years.

"Many voices are being raised in Israel" for dialogue with Damascus, Assad said. "So I say to Olmert: let him try, and see if we are bluffing."

Schoolgirls run past an armed member of the executive forces loyal to the ruling Hamas movement as shooting takes place nearby in Gaza City yesterday. Five Palestinians were killed and seven teenagers were wounded in clashes between rival factions in a busy Gaza City street. PHOTO: AFP