Israel ‘to freeze West Bank settlement expansion’

 Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will announce a freeze in West Bank settlement expansion as a gesture towards the Palestinians at a US peace meeting this month, a senior official said Thursday.The move is one of several gestures towards Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the Israeli premier plans to make during the one-day meeting expected to take place in Annapolis, Maryland, on November 27.

“The prime minister will declare a freeze to settlement expansion at Annapolis. In reality, we haven’t touched the settlements for over 18 months,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Israeli and Palestinian teams are currently engaged in intensive talks in a bid to hammer out a joint declaration outlining a solution to the Middle East conflict which they hope to present at the Annapolis meeting.

The US talks are aimed at offering the backing of the international community – and pro-Western Arab states in particular – to a hoped-for revival in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Palestinians want the pre-meeting document to address core issues of the conflict – borders, the fate of refugees, settlements and the status of Jerusalem – while Israelis prefer a more general statement of shared principles.

Olmert has vowed to proceed with peace talks on the basis of the 2003 roadmap peace plan, which calls on Israel to freeze settlement growth and to withdraw from outposts established after March 2001.

Israel also intends to carry through its commitment to dismantle the outposts, the official said, “but the question of its timing is still to be decided, because we want to do this in coordination with the settlers.” In addition to the settlement freeze, Olmert will also announce the release of “hundreds” of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, but only those who have not been involved in Israelis.

Israel has released hundreds of Palestinians in recent months as gestures of goodwill towards Abbas, but continues to hold more than 11,000 Palestinians in its jails.

Olmert is also likely to authorise the transport of goods out of the Gaza Strip, where the Islamist Hamas movement seized power last June, ousting Fateh movement.

“We will try to strengthen Gaza’s economy in a way that will clearly give the credit to Abbas,” the official said.

Israel has reduced to a minimum the transfer of goods into and out of Gaza since the Hamas takeover, but Olmert has said the Jewish state will not allow a humanitarian crisis to develop in the impoverished Palestinian territory.

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