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Abbas says Israel freeze of settlements a must

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated on Friday that Israel must stop all settlement activity in occupied territories to “salvage” the Middle East peace process suspended late last year.

Abbas told the U.N. General Assembly that the international community must pressure Israel to halt its settlement building which “will undermine the goal of establishing a geographically contiguous Palestinian state.”

The Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators on Thursday renewed a call for Israel to freeze settlements in occupied territories, two days after U.S. President Barack Obama appeared to back off this as a precondition for new talks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose coalition includes pro-settlement parties, has resisted U.S. pressure to freeze settlement building and has offered only a 9-month suspension.

Thanking Obama for his speech to the U.N. on Tuesday, Abbas said: “We affirm that adherence to this basis, in addition to the complete freeze of the settlement activities, can salvage the peace process and open horizons for its success.”

Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell next week continues talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will report back to Obama by mid-October on progress toward resuming peace negotiations.

Abbas blamed “Israeli intransigence, which refuses to adhere to the requirements for relaunching the peace process,” for the deadlock.

Also on Friday, Amr Moussa, Secretary General of the 22-nation Arab League, said Israel’s refusal to halt settlement building and other actions showed it was thwarting all efforts to revive the peace process.

Settlement began after Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war and building advanced rapidly in the 1980s. About 300,000 Israelis inhabit 100 settlements.

Israel dismantled several settlements in the Gaza Strip when it withdrew its military in 2005.

Abbas also called on the international community to press Israel to “release the 10,000 prisoners and detainees, and to lift the unjust siege imposed on the Gaza Strip.”

Israel launched an offensive last December with the declared aim of forcing Islamist Hamas fighters and other Palestinian groups in Gaza to stop firing rockets and mortars at Israeli towns. Since the fighting ended, it has tightly restricted goods crossing into the Strip.

Abbas said the Israeli offensive caused thousands of civilian casualties and “wrought unprecedented destruction of infrastructure, and public facilities.”

Editing by Alan Elsner, United Nations Bureau