End of Building Holds Key to Restoring Peace ; MIDDLE EAST: Mitchell Report Calls on Sharon to Lift Blockade on Gaza Strip While Attacking Arafat over His Failure to Control Palestinian Gunmen

Article excerpt

HIGH ON the list of problems identified by the US-led committee set up to investigate the explosion of violence in the Middle East was an issue that has been plaguing Israel's relations with the Palestinians for years, and steadily corroded faith in the Oslo peace talks: Jewish settlement building.

Palestinian officials say that Israel's confiscation of their land, the demolition of their homes and the growth of Israeli settler communities in the West Bank and Gaza was among the most combustible of the components that caused what they call the al- Aqsa intifada. Even now, with 500 dead - most of them Arabs - the Israeli government, now under the hardliner Ariel Sharon, is refusing to contemplate declaring a complete end to settlement expansion, for fear that it would be seen by Israelis - who are clamouring for an even tougher crackdown on the Palestinians - to be rewarding violence.

Mr Sharon, for years the champion of the hardline settler movement, is insisting on allowing what Israel calls the "natural growth of existing settlements" - sweeping aside a plea from the Palestinians in the current Egyptian-Jordan ceasefire proposals for a total building ban. It has become one of the main sticking points in the already dying Egyptian-Jordanian ceasefire plan, in which the Palestinians press for an absolute freeze.

The Mitchell draft report, acquired exclusively by The Independent, takes a firm position by reinforcing a posture stuck for some years - so far entirely in vain - by the international community, including Israel's main ally, America. It does not - doubtless to the disappointment of the Palestinians - suggest any way of enforcing a settlement freeze on Israel.

But it does say there should be a "freeze on all settlement activity", including the "natural growth" of existing settlements. Settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have grown by more than 50 per cent during the seven-year Oslo negotiations, now in chaos, sending the population of Israelis living on occupied land up to about 200,000 (excluding Israeli-annexed Arab east Jerusalem). Every new home has eaten away at Palestinian faith in the talks, and the hope that they will one day - under UN Security Council Resolution 242 - get back their land on which to build a state. …