Israeli and Palestinian negotiators began a new round of peace talks on Sunday, hours later than planned because of Palestinian protests over Israeli plans to expand a settlement in the occupied West Bank.
"We were alarmed to hear of the Israeli government decision to construct new settlement housing units around Jerusalem," chief Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo said.
"Actions like this gravely harm the current negotiations and threaten their ability to continue," Abed Rabbo said, confirming that the talks had nevertheless resumed.
Anti-settlement activist group Peace Now disclosed earlier Sunday that the Israeli government had issued tenders for 174 new homes at Maale Adumim, the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
The Palestinians marked their protest by delaying the start of the talks, which are aimed at meeting a mid-May deadline for a draft peace accord, a source close to the Palestinian delegation said.
The peace group reported that Prime Minister Ehud Barak's government is to allow more building in a large Jewish settlement near Jerusalem, ending a four-month freeze on construction imposed last year.
Abed Rabbo said the reported plans to expand Maale Adumim, the largest settlement in the West Bank which lies on the edge of occupied Jerusalem were dangerous for the peace process.
"We are here because we are serious about the negotiations," Abed Rabbo said ahead of the start of a new round of intensive talks on the final status of the Palestinian territories, following two inconclusive rounds in Washington.
"However, the recent Israeli settlement measures show that Barak's government is not serious about the negotiations and this is very dangerous," he told reporters.
His office said Abed Rabbo had fired off urgent letters to US Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, European Union envoy Miguel Moratinos and to the representatives of Jordan and Egypt urging them to intervene.
The final agreement is supposed to cover the fate of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, the status and borders of the Palestinian as well as the fate of some 180,000 Jews who live in some 150 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"We are here with a serious will to be engaged in real negotiations but the main issue will be settlements," senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said.
"There are extensive contacts with the Americans, the Egyptians, the Jordanians and the Europeans (to try to achieve progress)," Erakat told reporters.
Ross is due in the region on Tuesday to join the talks, ahead of a possible visit by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright within the next six to eight weeks.
Anti-settlement group 'Peace Now' lashed out at the Israel housing ministry, which it said, had issued a tender for building 174 homes in Maale Adumim.
"Either Barak is reneging on his commitment to a freeze, or he has lost control of his government," Peace Now director Gaby Lasky said.
"Continued building in the settlements, particularly building initiated under the current government, does not accord with a serious attempt to achieve peace with the Palestinians."
Erakat also insisted on the Palestinian demand that Israel carry out a third phase withdrawal from the West Bank under the 1993 Oslo peace accords by June, which the Palestinians say should give them 90 percent of the territory occupied by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
"No percentages have been presented to us (by Israel). However the third redeployment must be carried out by June," he said - (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )