Sharon to Cut Budget for Settlements due to US Protest

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has decided to substantively cut the budget allocated to Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The decision came as the U.S. administration said that continued settlement activities could fuel the already tense situation in the Middle East.

The U.S. protest was in response to reports that Israeli government was to allocate 1.5 billion shekels (about 365 million U.S. dollars) for the settlements for the next fives years, 500 million shekels (122 million dollars) more than the previous five years.

"This (settlement) activity risks further inflaming the already volatile situation in the region and is provocative," U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said earlier this week.

Israeli Army Radio reported Thursday that the budget has been cut to 600 million shekels (about 146 million dollars). The report said that the cut was due to American pressure, but aides to Sharon have denied that.

In another related development, Israel Radio reported Thursday the Prime Minister's Office said the cabinet will approve additional assistance of several hundred million shekels for the Jewish settlements.

The funds are not part of the budget but will be used for purchasing bullet-proof buses for the settlers to beef up their security.

Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said that Israel had informed the U.S. of the decision.

Israel has built more than 140 settlements in the occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the 1967 Middle East War. The future of the settlements is one of the core issues in the final-status Israeli-Palestinian negotiations which also cover the status of Jerusalem, border, water resources and the future of Palestinian refugees.

Israel's continued settlement activity has been condemned by the world community. The recent report by the International Inquiry Commission, also known as the Mitchell Commission set up to probe the causes of the Israeli-Palestinian bloody conflicts, also calls for a total freeze on settlement activities.

The Palestinians, who view the settlements as an obstacle to their aspiration for an independent state, set a halt to settlement construction as one of their conditions for ending the more than seven-month-old intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation.

The latest wave of Palestinian-Israeli conflict, sparked by Israel violation of an Islamic holy site in East Jerusalem last September, has so far killed more than 500 people, most of them Palestinians.

People's Daily Online ---