Palestinians Protest Settlement Plans as Stormy Peace Talks Continue

as the latest round of the U.S.-backed talks got underway, it was revealed that
Israel plans to expand two
settlements in occupied West Bank territory in
the next year.

angrily denounced the settlement expansion plans, the second such move by Israel since peace talks were revived for the
first time in seven years at a conference last month in Annapolis, Md.

today will focus on only one issue — how to stop the settlements on
Palestinian land,” senior negotiator Saeb Erakat told Agence France-Presse.

are ready to take the opportunity to negotiate, but we want to see the facts on
the ground and we see no need for negotiations while settlements are going
on,” he said.

Israel’s Construction Ministry unveiled a
proposal to build 500 homes in Har Homa and 240 in the Maale Adumim settlement
near Jerusalem
next year.

building of Har Homa is seen by the Palestinians as the last section in a “wall”
of settlements encircling Arab East Jerusalem, cutting it off from Bethlehem and the rest of the West
Bank. Palestinians say it is a strategic move by Israel to preempt any possibility of East Jerusalem becoming the Palestinian capital.

said Palestinians want Israelis to announce whether they will halt the
settlements before U.S.
President George W. Bush’s planned visit to the region next month.

— which are regarded as illegal by the international community — were to
dominate a meeting being planned this week between Palestinian president Mahmud
Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Erakat said.

ahead of the negotiations, Israeli ministers met to consider relaxing criteria
for releasing Palestinian prisoners.

Israeli restrictions on releasing prisoners with so-called “blood on their
hands”, a reference to attacks against Israelis, was part of efforts to
secure a swap deal with Hamas for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

deputy defense minister, Matan Vilnai, said Marwan Barghouthi, a Palestinian
uprising leader from Fatah who is seen as a possible successor to President
Mahmoud Abbas, could be a candidate for release.

to now, our hands have been tied. This will open the door for additional
prisoner releases for Abbas,” a senior Israeli official said on condition
of anonymity to Reuters. But Israel’s
Shin Bet intelligence agency opposed the changes and the closed-door meeting
ended without any decisions.

aides said full-blown negotiations — over borders, and the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees — would not begin
until Israel
committed to halting all settlement activity as called for under the
long-stalled “road map” peace plan.

road map also calls on the Palestinians to rein in militants, an obligation
that Israel says must be
fulfilled in the occupied West Bank and
Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip before a Palestinian state can be established.

thousands of pilgrims gathered Monday in Bethlehem
for a Christmas mass promoted by Abbas and Western powers as a chance to
highlight the benefits of peacemaking. Israel
allowed dozens of Christians from Gaza to travel
to Bethlehem to
take part in the festivities.

sound of church bells, drums and bagpipes filled Manger Square as religious and political
leaders arrived in the town where Christians believe Jesus was born.

“The new year, God willing, will be a year of
security and economic stability,” Abbas said in Bethlehem. “We pray next year will be
the year of independence for the Palestinian people.”