The Jordan Times
April 9, 2008 - 8:49am

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met for the first time in nearly two months on Monday with Palestinians cautioning that settlement expansion undercut the chances of a peace deal.

Abbas’ aide Saeb Erekat described differences over building in Jewish settlements, especially around Jerusalem, as "very deep", but Israeli officials said the leaders agreed not to allow such issues to interrupt the US-brokered negotiations.

Abbas last month briefly suspended the talks, which have shown little outward sign of progress, after an Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip that killed more than 120 people.

"The peace process has credibility that needs to be restored. The continuation of settlement activities eats up this credibility and undermines the possibility of reaching a peace agreement," Erekat said after the meeting, the first between the leaders since mid-February.

Palestinian concerns centre on Olmert's decision to press ahead with building in major settlement blocs in the occupied West Bank despite international protests.

A senior Israeli official said Olmert told the meeting that Palestinian security forces were not doing enough to rein in fighters opposed to Abbas' peace moves.

"It was agreed that despite concerns that both parties have concerning issues on the ground... the negotiations will continue with the goal of reaching an historic agreement by the end of the year," said Mark Regev, an Olmert spokesman.

The United States has stepped up pressure on both sides to take confidence-building steps ahead of a visit by President George W. Bush in May. Washington hopes they can clinch a Palestinian statehood deal before Bush leaves office in January.

"That will require hard work," Regev said.


Israeli officials said the latest talks, which were held at Olmert's Jerusalem residence, gave the leaders a chance to assess the state of negotiations launched at a conference in Annapolis, Maryland, in November.

"We are negotiating in all seriousness and seek to reach a settlement to all final-status issues, but the settlement will not be at any price," Abbas said on Sunday.

Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip in June after routing Abbas' more secular Fateh forces, called the talks "a farce".

"The continuation of meetings with occupation leaders, and the exchange of smiles and kisses, does not serve our people and provide cover for the occupation's aggression," said Taher Nono, spokesman of Hamas' government in the Gaza Strip.

The lead negotiators - Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia - have been meeting regularly and took part in Monday's session with Olmert and Abbas, Israeli officials said.

Regev said both sides reiterated their commitment to implement a long-stalled "roadmap" peace plan, at the heart of the first final-status talks in seven years.

But he did not say when Israel would fulfil its commitments under the plan, which requires the Jewish state to halt all settlement activity in the occupied West Bank and uproot outposts built without government authorisation.

The roadmap obliges the Palestinians to rein in armed groups.

Washington has said neither side has done nearly enough to fulfil their obligations, but US officials have in private been particularly critical of Israel for announcing a series of construction projects in and around Arab East Jerusalem.

Israel considers all of Jerusalem its capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

After a visit last week by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israel said it removed 50 roadblocks in the West Bank, a figure that could not be independently verified because the army would not release a map showing the location of the barriers. Hundreds more roadblocks remain.

Erekat said West Bank restrictions remained the same.

Shepherd killed

Angry Palestinians clashed with Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank on Monday after a bus carrying Israeli settlers ran over and killed a Palestinian shepherd as he led his herd across a road.

Sharid Shtayeh, 15, was riding his donkey when a passenger bus carrying Jewish settlers to the settlement of Elon Moreh slammed into his herd near the Palestinian village of Salem, killing him, his donkey and a number of sheep.

An Israeli police spokesman confirmed the shepherd was killed in a road accident. An Israeli ambulance crew pronounced Shtayeh dead at the scene. The carcasses of the dead donkey and the sheep were strewn across the road.

Residents of Salem, where Shatyeh lived, hurled stones at the bus passengers and Israeli soldiers had to fire into the air to disperse the angry crowd, local witnesses said.

Ahmad Jabour, a member of Salem's local council, said the shepherd was the third Palestinian to be killed in the area by Israeli drivers during the last 12 months.

Fact-finding mission

The head of a UN body charged with collecting Palestinian claims of damages resulting from Israel's West Bank barrier has begun his first fact-finding mission, UN officials said on Monday.

Vladimir Goryayev, executive director of the United Nations Register of Damage caused by the construction of the barrier in the occupied Palestinian territory (UNRoD), arrived on Sunday for a week-long visit.

A UN official said Goryayev would visit areas affected by the project in and around the West Bank and meet "potential claimants".

"This is a technical visit to establish direct contacts with the relevant parties in the region, and see the situation on the ground," the official said.

Over objections from Israel and the United States, the UN Register was created in 2006 to establish a record of damages caused by the barrier.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Arye Mekel said Israeli officials would not meet Goryayev.

"We believe that his mandate is another product of the automatic majority the Arabs have at the General Assembly," Mekel said. "He has no legitimacy whatsoever and he only does harm to those that he wants to help." The International Court of Justice in the Hague has ruled the barrier illegal.

Palestinians, who number about 2.5 million in the West Bank and 1.5 million in the Gaza Strip, say the West Bank barrier is a land grab that disrupts their economy and unfairly prejudges the borders of any future Palestinian state.

Israel says it needs the barrier, an electronic fence topped with razor wire along much of its route and a concrete wall in other places, to keep out suicide bombers.

Mekel said Palestinians who claim they have damages as a result of the project "are better off seeking compensation through those channels that the state of Israel provides for them".


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