Palestinian officials and Israeli peace campaigners accused Ariel Sharon's government of undermining peace efforts by expanding West Bank settlements even as it hands control of Arab towns to the Palestinian security services.
Shaul Mofaz, Israel's Defence Minister, announced that the army would pull back today from a second town, Tulkarm. Senior officers from both sides were meeting last night to fine-tune the details. Mr Mofaz expects another town, Qalqiliya, to follow soon afterwards.
Jericho was handed over last week, the first of five in the current batch designed to enhance the credibility of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, and his strategy of winning a state by diplomacy.
At the same time, however, the liberal daily paper Ha'aretz reported that an aerial photography survey, commissioned by the Defence Ministry, revealed extensive building since last summer in existing settlements, thus violating Israel's commitments under the international road map for peace. A ministry spokeswoman would only confirm that they were trying to increase their knowledge of what was going on.
Officials maintain that the Bush administration, the road-map's principal sponsor, has agreed to continued construction within the built-up area of existing communities. An Israeli report, published this month, revealed widespread duplicity by successive governments, which condemned "illegal" settlement outposts while providing the necessary budgets and infrastructure for them.
Peace Now claimed to have obtained the same photographs as the Defence Ministry from the same private Israeli company, Nesher. It showed that 3,000 to 3,500 new homes were currently under construction, close to the pre-1967 "Green Line" that Mr Sharon hopes to keep when final borders are negotiated between the Palestinian and Jewish states.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, predicted that Israel's "contradictory" approach would destroy the peace process - and the Palestinian moderates with it. "It's either settlements or peace," he insisted. "As far as the Israeli government is concerned, the line seems to be settlements and their kind of peace. It's obvious now that what they want ... is Gaza plus 50-60 per cent of the West Bank, without contiguity."
Yariv Oppenheimer, the director general of Peace Now, said: "There seems to be no connection between Israeli policies in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. While we hear that Israel is evacuating Gaza, what we see on the West Bank is a continuation of building new houses, in addition to the expansion of the outposts."
Low-level mayhem continued on the West Bank yesterday. Gunmen wounded three Israeli soldiers, one critically, in the al-Omri refugee camp near the West Bank town of Ramallah. The troops were escorting Israeli police searching for stolen cars. Further south, in Bethlehem, an Israeli border policeman seriously wounded a Palestinian said to have tried to seize his automatic rifle.
© 2005 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd