RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) -- Israeli settlement building anywhere on occupied land is illegal and must be stopped, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said Saturday, after getting a closer look at some of the Israeli enclaves scattered across Palestinian-claimed territories.
From a hilltop observation post on the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Ramallah, the U.N. secretary-general saw the sprawling West Bank settlement of Givat Zeev, home to 11,000 Israelis who live in rows of red-roofed houses. The panorama included Jewish neighborhoods in traditionally Arab east Jerusalem, the Israeli-annexed sector of the city that Palestinians claim as a future capital.
The brief geography lesson came a day after Ban, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other major Mideast mediators -- known as the Quartet -- met in Moscow to try to find a way to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The mediators urged Israel to halt all settlement construction, which has emerged as a key obstacle to renewing talks. Israel has agreed to curb settlement construction in the West Bank, but not in east Jerusalem, claiming the entire city as Israel's eternal capital.
On Saturday, Ban rejected Israel's distinction between east Jerusalem and the West Bank, noting that both are occupied lands.
"The world has condemned Israel's settlement plans in east Jerusalem," Ban told a news conference after his brief tour. "Let us be clear. All settlement activity is illegal anywhere in occupied territory and must be stopped."
The U.N. chief reassured his Palestinian hosts that the international community supports the establishment of a Palestinian state, and also expressed concern about what he said was a worsening humanitarian situation in blockaded Hamas-ruled Gaza.
Earlier this month, Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to indirect talks, with U.S. envoy George Mitchell to shuttle between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. However, the indirect talks were put on hold after Israel announced plans to build 1,600 new houses for Jews in east Jerusalem.
The announcement -- which came during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden -- prompted a major diplomatic row between Israel and the U.S., though Clinton suggested Friday that a way could be found to renew negotiations. Clinton has asked Netanyahu for specific gestures, including canceling the most recent housing plan, and is to hear from the Israeli leader in a meeting in Washington early next week.
Meanwhile, Mitchell is returning to the region over the weekend and is planning to brief Abbas on U.S. efforts. Abbas has said he will not negotiate with Israel directly unless it freezes all settlement construction, including in east Jerusalem.
Ban said Saturday that he hopes the indirect talks will be launched very soon.
Palestinians fear that expanding settlements will take up more and more of the land they want for their state.
Netanyahu has agreed to a 10-month curb in West Bank construction that ends in September, but the construction of some 3,000 homes in settlements, begun before Israel declared the partial freeze, is continuing.
Nearly half a million Israelis live on war-won land, including some 180,000 in east Jerusalem and nearly 300,000 in the West Bank.
Violent protests have erupted several times in the past week in east Jerusalem, where residents are angry over both the new Jewish housing plans and unsubstantiated rumors that Jewish extremists are plotting to take over an Old City shrine, holy to both Muslims and Jews.
The city was largely calm Saturday, although in a minor incident Palestinian youths lobbed some rocks at Israeli troops, who responded with tear gas and rubber bullet fire.
On Sunday, Ban is to visit Gaza. Israel and Egypt imposed a border blockade after Hamas seized Gaza by force in 2007. The closure, including the ban on the import of building materials, has prevented reconstruction of thousands of apartments destroyed or damaged during Israel's three-week military offensive against Gaza's Hamas rulers more than a year ago.
"I go to Gaza tomorrow to express my solidarity with the plight of the Palestinians here and to underscore the need to end the blockade," he said.
Several U.N. projects in Gaza, including 150 low-income apartments in the town of Khan Younis, have also been put on hold as a result of the blockade. Ban confirmed Saturday that Israel has given the go-ahead for the Khan Younis project.
He said Israel's decision is a first step but that more needs to be done.
"I am deeply concerned about the worsening humanitarian situation" in Gaza, he said.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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