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Bloodshed, settlements hike pressure on Mideast talks

Dec. 20, 2013 12:47 A.M. (Updated: Dec. 20, 2013 9:51 A.M.)
RAMALLAH (AFP) -- The struggling Middle East peace talks came under further pressure Thursday after Israeli troops shot dead two Palestinians and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to push more settlement construction.

Despite relentless US efforts to coax Israel and the Palestinians into reaching an elusive peace agreement, tensions between the two sides showed little sign of abating as the negotiations, which are scheduled to last nine months, limped past the halfway point.

In an address to his right-wing Likud party late Wednesday, Netanyahu blamed the Palestinians for the absence of peace, and promised there would be no let-up in construction on land they want for a future state in an apparent rebuff to US pressure.

And in Ramallah, presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina accused Israel of a "dangerous escalation" after two Palestinians were shot dead in separate arrest raids by Israeli troops in the northern West Bank, calling the violence a deliberate attempt to scupper peace talks.

"This dangerous Israeli escalation aims to thwart American and international efforts to move forward with the peace process, and leads the negotiations to a dead end," Abu Rudeina said in a statement published by the official WAFA news agency.

His remarks were made after the Palestinians were killed in the cities of Jenin and Qalqilya.

On Wednesday night, troops killed an Islamic Jihad militant in a confrontation in Jenin refugee camp, sources on both sides said.

In a statement, the army said troops had gone in "to arrest a suspect" but opened fire after being hit by gunfire, home-made grenades and explosive devices.

Several Palestinians were wounded in the exchange and one died on the way to hospital.

Palestinian security sources said the Israelis were undercover, disguised as employees of the PalTel phone company.

Several hours later, a Palestinian security officer was shot dead just before dawn during an exchange of fire in Qaliqilya, the army said, describing him as a "known gunman" responsible for firing at troops.

Palestinian sources said the man, an intelligence officer, was shot three times in the chest as he was on his way home.

The latest deaths raised to 28 the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli troops this year.

'We will not stop building'

Meanwhile, just 10 days before releasing another 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners in line with commitments to Washington, Netanyahu vowed that Israel would continue developing the settlements.

"We will not stop, even for a moment, building our country and becoming stronger, and developing ... the settlement enterprise," he said in remarks broadcast by army radio Thursday.

His comments followed a report by the Haaretz news website that US Secretary of State John Kerry had urged Netanyahu and his cabinet "to exercise maximum restraint in announcing new construction", in tandem with the impending prisoner release on Dec. 29.

Two previous rounds of prisoner releases in August and October were accompanied by Israeli announcements of fresh construction, sparking deep anger in Ramallah.

This week, in an opinion piece in Israel HaYom newspaper, former peace negotiator Yossi Beilin said Kerry had warned President Mahmoud Abbas that Netanyahu was planning to unveil 2,000 new housing units when the prisoners are freed.

Earlier this month, reports emerged that Washington was trying to delay the planned prisoner release, with Haaretz suggesting it was an attempt "to avert the looming crisis" which would be sparked by any such construction announcement.

But Netanyahu appeared resolute in his remarks made late on Wednesday, blaming the absence of any peace agreement on the Palestinians' refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

"I know that people keep telling us that there is no peace because of the settlements, because of our presence in Judaea and Samaria and it's not true," he said, using the biblical term for the West Bank.

"There is no peace because of the ongoing opposition to the existence of a national Jewish homeland within any borders, and we have the right to a state just like any other people."
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