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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 September 2005, 16:56 GMT 17:56 UK
Expand settlements, Israel urged
Maale Adumim settlement in the West Bank
Israel could be planning to add thousands of homes in the W Bank
An Israeli cabinet minister says the government should take advantage of the withdrawal of settlers from Gaza by expanding settlements in the West Bank.

Education Minister Limor Livnat said the pullout was a heavy price to pay, and Israel should now reap a dividend.

She said this should be done even if it meant overriding American objections.

The US has urged Israel to keep to its commitment to freeze settlement building, outlined in the international peace plan known as the road-map.

We have paid a heavy price with disengagement and we have to reap the dividends
Limor Livnat
The statement echoes quotations attributed to Prime Minister - and fellow Likud member - Ariel Sharon in a meeting of Likud mayors on Sunday.

"There's no need to talk, we need to build, and we're building without talking," he is quoted as saying.

'Exceptional opportunity'

Correspondent say the debate over settlement building is central to a Likud leadership struggle between Mr Sharon and challenger Binyamin Netanyahu, as both try to appeal to the pro-settlement constituency of their party.

Ariel Sharon visits a school with Limor Livnat
Ms Livnat's (R) intervention comes amid a bitter leadership battle
On Monday, deputy defence minister and Sharon ally Zeev Boim said another 3,000 housing units would be built in the strategic Ariel settlement bloc - although this was denied by Mr Sharon's office, saying the number was in fact 117.

"We must take advantage of the exceptional situation that has presented itself to strengthen the settlement blocs," Ms Livnat told public radio.

"We have paid a heavy price with disengagement and we have to reap the dividends even at the expense of disagreement from Washington," she added.

Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in 1967 and has settled more than 400,000 people in Jewish-only settlements in the territories since then.

Israel completed the withdrawal of 8,500 settlers from Gaza and the northern West Bank last month with its unilateral disengagement plan.

Synagogue dilemma

In the aftermath of the Gaza withdrawal, Israel's supreme court has ordered Mr Sharon to ask the Palestinians and international mediators to protect empty synagogues in the former settlement enclaves.

The court request followed a ruling by Israel's chief rabbis that it was forbidden to demolish synagogues.

Former Israeli settlement Neve Dekalim, with synagogue in distance
Gaza's 20 synagogues stand out amid the rubble of bulldozed homes
All the private homes in Gaza's 21 settlements have been demolished under an agreement with the Palestinians, who need the land for high-density housing, agriculture and industry.

Mr Sharon should "issue official requests to different authorities in order to ensure that with the transfer of all of Gaza to Palestinian control the synagogues will be preserved and not demolished", the court ruled.

The rabbis' ruling has complicated Israel's pullout schedule, which it hoped to bring to completion by 15 September.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians did not want responsibility for the buildings - which have been built illegally according to international law.

He explained that demolishing the buildings would provoke Israeli anger, while leaving them intact would provide a ready target for Palestinian extremists.

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