March 27, 2009 / 2:18 PM / in 10 years

U.S. surveys flashpoint West Bank settlement

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - U.S. diplomats assessed Jewish settlement activity at an Israeli-occupied district near Jerusalem on Friday, in a public signal of greater activism by the Obama administration in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinians jump as they avoid tear gas fired by Israeli soldiers during a protest against Israel's security barrier in the West Bank village of Bilin near Ramallah March 27, 2009. REUTERS/Fadi Arouri

A spokeswoman for the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, confirmed the visit took place “as part of our ongoing observation activities in the area,” which Israel sees as a critical link between Jerusalem and the sprawling settlement of Maale Adumim.

Palestinians say building in what Israel calls E1, an area of occupied land between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, would deny them a viable state by cutting the West Bank in two and isolating Arab East Jerusalem, which they want as their capital.

An assessment of Israeli activities, prepared by the diplomats, will be sent to Washington.

The visit comes just days before Benjamin Netanyahu takes over as Israeli prime minister with a coalition government dominated by right-wing and Jewish Orthodox religious parties who advocate settlement building on occupied land.

Avigdor Lieberman, an ultranationalist who is slated to become Netanyahu’s foreign minister, lives in a small settlement near Maale Adumim and advocates a hard line on annexing parts of the West Bank to Israel if a Palestinian state is ever created.

Western diplomats said Israeli building in E1 could become a major source of tension with Netanyahu, who has shied away from endorsing the U.S.-backed goal of creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, alongside Israel.

According to Israeli political sources, Netanyahu’s hawkish Likud party agreed in coalition talks with Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu to the construction of some 3,000 housing units in E1.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat urged U.S. President Barack Obama to intervene with Israel to prevent any construction from going forward, calling it the “last nail in the coffin for peacemaking.”

The long-stalled peace “road map,” monitored by the United States, calls on Israel to halt all settlement activity, and for the Palestinians to rein in militants.

Israel froze most of its activities in E1 under pressure from the administration of President George W. Bush.

Hagit Ofran of the Israeli Peace Now organization, which tracks settlement growth, said the Obama administration was concerned about future building plans under Netanyahu.

She said Friday’s visit was “a signal to say to the new Israeli government that the Americans are interested in what’s going on the ground and that they don’t want to see the Israelis constructing in E1.”

U.S. diplomats frequently visit East Jerusalem and the West Bank to monitor Israeli settlement building, but such visits are rarely public.

“We keep track of all developments in the West Bank and Jerusalem on an ongoing basis and report regularly to Washington,” Schweitzer-Bluhm said.

In addition to Friday’s visit to E1, the Obama administration has lobbied Israel to remove restrictions on aid shipments to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and has criticized the demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem.

Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Dominic Evans

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