Israel Builds More Settlements

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM – Defying international calls to stop settlement activities, Israel unveiled Friday, March 21, plans to expand a sprawling settlement in the occupied West Bank.

More 54 housing unit will be added to the Efrat settlement in southern West Bank, reported Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Construction works would start on Sunday, March 23, AFP said, citing a report in the right-wing Hebrew Makor-Rishon Hatzofe daily.

The project was approved by the Israeli government, it added.

Efrat, which has a population of 4,000, is also part of the Gush Etzion block south of the Occupied East Jerusalem).

Since November, Israel has announced two expansions of settlement blocs in the occupied West Bank and Occupied East Jerusalem.

Last May, Israel announced plans to build three more Jewish settlements to encircle East Jerusalem, occupied in the 1967 war and later annexed to Israel in a move not recognized by the international community.

There are more than 164 Jewish settlements in the West Bank, eating up more than 40 percent of the occupied territory.

The international community considers all Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land illegal.

Israel has paid no heed to international heavyweights — including close ally the United States — which demanded Israel to dismantle existing settlements in the West Bank and freeze its settlement activity.

The latest call came Friday from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is currently on a Middle East tour to promote a new international peace conference.

"We are worried by the Israeli settlement activity and urge Israel to end it," Lavrov said at a news conference with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah Friday.

The non-stop Israeli settlement construction of settlements has been a major stumbling block for peace talks with the Palestinians.

In Annapolis peace conference last, which was organized by the US last November to revive the stalled peace talks, Israel pledged to abide by a five-year-old internationally drafted peace blueprint known as the roadmap.

Under the roadmap, Israel must freeze all settlement activities and vacate settlements constructed after March 2001.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert renewed his pledges earlier this week that Israel would continue to build settlements in East Jerusalem.

Lavrov, who earlier visited Israel and Syria where he met Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, also called on Israel to lift the crippling blockade it imposed on the Gaza Strip.

"The blockade imposed against Gaza is unacceptable and it must be ended so the Palestinian people can live normally," he said.

Israel had slapped a crippling siege on the Gaza Strip after Hamas took control of the tiny territory last June following a bloody internecine conflict with rival Fatah.

International and UN aid groups, most of which have been operating in the impoverished Gaza Strip for decades, blame the Israeli blockade for the deteriorating humanitarian conditions.

( and agencies)

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