Palestinians: home demolitions hurt peace talks

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By Associated Press

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Palestinians have warned a U.S. envoy that it will be difficult to revive peace talks if Washington cannot stop Israel from demolishing Arab homes or building for Jews in east Jerusalem, their chief negotiator said Friday.

White House envoy George Mitchell is expected to try to persuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a meeting Saturday to agree to direct negotiations with Israel. Abbas aides say they expect Mitchell to tell the Palestinian president what Israel is prepared to do to make that happen.

Abbas has said he won't return to the negotiating table unless Israel freezes all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, war-won territories the Palestinians want for their state. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has curbed construction in the West Bank, but refuses to do so in east Jerusalem. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem as a future capital.

Abbas also wants Israeli assurances that talks will pick up where they broke off under Netanyahu's predecessor in December 2008. Netanyahu has declined to make such a commitment.

Mitchell met with Netanyahu on Friday, but government spokesman Mark Regev would not comment on those talks.

Earlier this week, Israel demolished six Arab-owned buildings in east Jerusalem, including three homes, saying they were built without permits. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem say it is difficult to obtain permits because of discriminatory zoning practices. The demolitions were the first since October, and drew international criticism, including from the U.S.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said he warned Mitchell in a letter that the demolitions, along with Israeli plans to build more houses for Jews in east Jerusalem, threaten peace prospects.

"If the United States cannot stop these measures, then the Israeli practices will lead to undermining all efforts that have been exerted to revive the peace process," Erekat said he wrote to Mitchell.

However, Abbas will likely find himself under intense U.S. pressure to return to direct negotiations, even if all of his demands are not met. Erekat said Arab League foreign ministers would discuss the matter July 29, followed by a meeting of the PLO's top decision-making body.

In other developments, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton is visiting Israel, the West Bank and Gaza over the weekend.

She plans to get a firsthand look at conditions in Gaza since Israel started to ease its 3-year-old border blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory. Last week, Israel announced that it is allowing most consumer goods into Gaza, but will continue to ban "dual use" items that could be diverted by Hamas for military purposes.

Israel is also restricting the import of badly needed construction materials, especially cement, saying it will only allow in shipments for aid projects supervised by international agencies. Exports are still banned, and most Gazans are still unable to travel.

The EU is seeking a complete opening of Gaza's border crossings.

"The European Union has been calling for an urgent and fundamental change of policy regarding the closure of Gaza," Ashton said on the eve of her visit.