Palestinians confront Israeli control in West Bank

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By Associated Press

BANI HASSAN, West Bank (AP) — With a pledge to rebuild a demolished road, the Palestinian prime minister opened a confrontation with Israel Tuesday over the large parts of the West Bank that are under sole Israeli control.

Israeli troops recently tore up the small Palestinian-built road, which links the Palestinian village of Bani Hassan to its olive groves to make it easier for farmers at harvest time. But it is also in one of the areas under full Israeli control that account for about 60 percent of the West Bank.

"We are going to rebuild this road and do it quickly," Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told villagers while inspecting the damage. "And if they are going to destroy it again, we will build it again, and we will pursue development in every square inch of our territory."

Fayyad argues he must be able to carry out projects throughout the West Bank as part of an internationally backed two-year plan to lay the foundations for Palestinian statehood by August. And he appears to have some international backing.

The Palestinians seek all of the West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as part of an independent state along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

Under interim peace agreements reached in the 1990s, Fayyad's Palestinian Authority has limited powers in 40 percent of the West Bank — areas where major Palestinian population centers are concentrated.

It has no say in the remaining 60 percent — mostly rural areas with some Palestinian villages, more than 120 Israeli settlements and Israeli military bases. Fayyad says he considers this classification of areas no longer relevant.

The Palestinians are turning the 1 1/2-mile (two-kilometer) stretch, paved earlier this year and dubbed "freedom road," into a test case.

Last week, Israeli forces tore up the asphalt in many sections, saying the road was in a nature preserve.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev urged the Palestinians to coordinate with Israel and not act unilaterally.

"Israel seeks to cooperate with the Palestinian Authority and help the Palestinians develop their national institutions," Regev said. "This must be done in coordination, and I think if we look at the progress of the last few years, though many challenges remain, we can see there have been many positive developments."

However, Israel rarely grants construction permits for Palestinians in "Area C," the territory under sole Israeli control. Major projects, including industrial parks and the Palestinians' first planned city, have been delayed because they would partially fall into Area C.

Fayyad says he intends to inspire Palestinians by not giving up and rebuilding what has been demolished. Although Israel seems to have the final say, Fayyad appears to be banking on rallying international support.

Asked about the issue, international Mideast envoy Tony Blair told The Associated Press this week that he considers Fayyad's attempts to prepare for statehood very important and that he would raise the issue of the demolished road with Israeli leaders.

On Tuesday, diplomats from France and Belgium visited Bani Hassan to inspect the road.

Damien Cristofari, the French deputy consul in Jerusalem, said: "We are here to ... support the government of Salam Fayyad in his mission to build the Palestinian state." He condemned the demolition as "clearly contrary to the spirit of peace."

The brewing battle over Area C comes at a time of little hope that Israeli-Palestinian peace talks could restart soon. After a few rounds of negotiations in September, the U.S.-led efforts ran aground over Israel's refusal to freeze settlement construction on war-won land claimed by the Palestinians for their state.

In other developments Tuesday, Israel's internal security service said it arrested three Palestinians in October in connection with a September shooting attack near the West Bank town of Hebron.

One of the accused, Nabil Hareb, was allegedly sent for military training in Syria, after which he was ordered to execute the attack, a statement said.

It said the three men admitted to planning and carrying out the attack, where they shot at two Israeli cars, injuring two people lightly. The announcement came after a court-imposed gag order on the case was lifted.