JERUSALEM (AFP) — Palestinians on Wednesday demanded that Israel halt all settlement activity as the two sides met for the first time since reviving the stalled Middle East peace process at a US conference.
Israel's recent decision to expand a settlement in east Jerusalem dominated the meeting between the negotiating teams headed by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian premier Ahmed Qorei, officials said.
"The meeting focused on one single issue -- settlements," Saeb Erakat, a member of the Palestinian team, told AFP after the teams huddled at a Jerusalem hotel, away from the media glare.
"We demanded a total stop, without exception, to the settlements, including those linked to natural growth," Qorei said in a statement, saying the settlements were "a stumbling block on the road toward a real peace."
"We demanded that they repeal the decision (to expand a Jerusalem settlement) and that they strictly adhere to the first phase of the roadmap which clearly mentions a total stop to settlements," he said.
Said a senior Israeli official: "The Palestinians raised the issue of the ongoing settlement construction and said that it would create difficulties in negotiations and anger among Palestinians."
"Israel said that the Palestinians must work harder on security issues including Gaza, but also the West Bank, where only last week three PA policemen were arrested on charges of murdering an Israeli," the Israeli official said.
The next meeting of the negotiating teams will take place after a donor's conference due to take place in Paris on December 17, officials on both sides said.
Last week Israel invited bids for more than 300 new housing units in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood known to Arabs as Abu Ghneim and to Israelis as Har Homa.
The move came a week after the November conference in the US city in Annapolis, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and president Mahmud Abbas had formally revived peace talks after a seven-year freeze.
The housing tender sparked howls of protest from the Palestinians and criticism from Israel's main ally Washington and also from the European Union.
Erakat said that the Palestinians would appeal to the Americans, as arbiters of the revived peace process, to pressure Israel to repeal the decision.
At Annapolis, Abbas and Olmert pledged to work toward a comprehensive deal by the end of 2008 and to implement the international roadmap plan, which calls on Israel to halt all settlement activity and for the Palestinians to improve law and order.
In addition to settlements, the two sides remain deeply divided on the other most difficult issues of their decades-old conflict that have sunk previous peace attempts -- borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
Another issue hanging over the relaunched talks is Hamas's control of the Gaza Strip, the smaller half of the Palestinians' promised state.
The Islamists routed Abbas loyalists in the coastal strip in mid-June, raising concerns that the president will not be able to implement any agreements that he may reach with the Israelis.
Hamas, which does not recognise Israel and opposes all talks with it, slammed Wednesday's negotiating session.
"Hamas denounces the persistence of the Palestinian Authority to negotiate with the occupation at a time when its crimes and settlements, particularly in Jerusalem, continue," Hamas said in a statement, calling for an immediate halt to the "absurd negotiations."
Ahead of the meeting, the Palestinians slammed one of the largest Israeli incursions into Gaza the previous day, during which six militants were killed.
Israel's security cabinet on Wednesday ruled out for the time being launching a widescale military operation in Gaza to counter near daily rocket fire from the territory, a senior official told AFP.
But the military chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi warned that despite Wednesday's decision, the time was "approaching" when Israel would launch a major offensive in Gaza.
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