UN chief is shown Israeli settlements, barrier

RAMALLAH: U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon on Saturday got a closer look at what has emerged as a main obstacle to restarting Mideast peace talks — Israeli settlements on Palestinian-claimed land.

Ban was escorted to a West Bank observation point by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

From the hill on the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Ramallah, the U.N. secretary-general was able to see the sprawling Israeli West Bank settlement of Givat Zeev, home to 11,000 Israelis who live in rows of red-roofed houses. The panorama also included Jewish neighborhoods in traditionally Arab east Jerusalem, the Israeli-annexed sector the Palestinians claim as a future capital.

From his vantage point, Ban saw Israel's separation barrier — part fence and part cement slabs — snaking through the landscape, as well as a walled Israeli prison camp for Palestinians arrested by Israeli troops.

The brief geography lesson came a day after Ban, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other major Mideast mediators — known as the Quartet — met in Moscow to try to find a way to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

"Our Quartet partners have sent a clear message that we support your plan of establishing a viable, independent Palestinian state," Ban told Fayyad at the lookout point. He also expressed concern about the humanitarian situation in Hamas-ruled Gaza, which has been buckling under a border blockade by Israel and Egypt for nearly three years.

Earlier this month, Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to indirect talks, with U.S. envoy George Mitchell to shuttle between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. However, the indirect talks were put on hold after Israel announced plans to build 1,600 new houses for Jews in east Jerusalem.

The announcement prompted a major diplomatic row between Israel and the U.S., though Clinton suggested Friday that a way could be found to renew negotiations. Clinton has asked Netanyahu for specific gestures, including canceling the most recent housing plan, and is to hear from the Israeli leader in a meeting in Washington early next week.

Meanwhile, Mitchell is returning to the region over the weekend and is planning to brief Abbas on U.S. efforts. Abbas has said he will not negotiate with Israel directly unless it freezes all settlement construction, including in east Jerusalem.

On Friday, the Quartet reiterated its demand for a complete settlement freeze.

It also affirmed that the international community does not recognize Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem, the territory it captured in the 1967 Mideast War, along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Palestinians fear that expanding settlements will take up more and more of the land they want for their state.

Netanyahu has agreed to a 10-month curb in West Bank construction that ends in September, but the construction of some 3,000 homes in settlements, begun before Israel declared the partial freeze, is continuing.

Nearly half a million Israelis live on war-won land, including some 180,000 in east Jerusalem and nearly 300,000 in the West Bank.

The separation barrier, built over the last eight years, slices off about 8.5 percent of the West Bank. Israel says it's a temporary security measure to keep out militants, but it juts deep into the West Bank in some areas in what Palestinians say is a land grab. l

On Sunday, Ban is to visit Gaza. The closure of the territory, including the ban on the import of building materials, has prevented reconstruction of thousands of apartments destroyed or damaged during Israel's three-week military offensive against Gaza's Hamas rulers more than a year ago.

Several U.N. projects in Gaza, including 150 low-income apartments in the town of Khan Younis, have also been put on hold as a result of the blockade. Ban confirmed Saturday that Israel has given the go-ahead for the Khan Younis project.

He said Israel's decision is a first step, but that more needs to be done.

"I am deeply concerned about the worsening humanitarian situation" in Gaza, he said.