Brown demands Israel cease settlement expansion programme

BRITISH prime minister Gordon Brown demanded that Israel cease settlement construction and promised more money to jump-start the battered Palestinian economy.

In his first trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories as Britain’s leader, Brown stressed that economics are key to Middle East peace, and said Israel should ease travel restrictions in the West Bank that have hindered commerce.

But his strongest comments were reserved for the settlements: “I think the whole European Union is very clear on this matter: We want to see a freeze on settlements.

“Settlement expansion has made peace harder to achieve. It erodes trust, it heightens Palestinian suffering, it makes the compromises Israel needs to make for peace more difficult,” Brown said at a news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said he would reserve comment on Brown’s remarks until the British leader had finished meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem.

Abbas went further in his criticism of Israel’s construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, telling Brown that Israel lacks commitment to the “principles and spirit” of Middle East peace efforts. He singled out stepped-up Jewish settlement construction in areas of Jerusalem the Palestinians claim for their capital.

Under the first phase of the internationally backed “road map” peace plan Israel was to freeze all settlement construction and the Palestinians were to crack down on militant groups.

Brown said that Britain would donate $60 million (€38m) on top of $500m the British government has pledged to the Palestinians over the next three years.

He spoke of the need to create jobs by building industrial parks, promoting small businesses and putting up desperately needed housing. He also promised to help the Palestinians train their security forces.

Ismail Haniyeh, who heads the Hamas government in Gaza, said that Brown should visit Gaza to see the “humanitarian crisis” caused by Israel’s blockade “unfortunately with the participation of several countries, including European countries and the British themselves.”

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