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Last Updated: Friday, 2 January, 2004, 22:33 GMT
Israel denies Golan plan reports
Earth mover in Golan Heights in 1999
The Golan Heights provide Israel with a third of its water needs
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has dismissed as "untrue" reports that Israel planned to expand its Golan Heights settlements.

Mr Olmert said the government had "no such programme" for the Syrian plateau Israel occupied in the 1967 war.

He was referring to earlier comments by Israeli Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz who said Israel would build 900 new homes on the Golan Heights.

Mr Katz's comments immediately drew international condemnation.

Settlements pledge

In an interview with the BBC's HARDTalk programme, Mr Olmert dismissed Mr Katz's remarks - published by the Yediot Ahronot daily earlier this week - as a personal view of a politician.

"He (Katz) may have declared something... but in terms of the government policy... there is no such approved programme," Mr Olmert said.

He said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had already denied an expansion plan ever existed, adding that the government would never agree to finance such a programme.

Mr Olmert also denied suggestions that the cabinet was deeply split on the issue.

At the same time, he said Israel was committed to removing unauthorised Jewish settlements from the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza - as required by the US-backed Middle East peace plan, the roadmap.

He said some 100 settlements would be dismantled despite a possible backlash from tens of thousands of settlers that would be affected by the move.

"We have to do it... and we'll do it," Mr Olmert said, adding that the government was ready to use all the "necessary measures" to ensure its decisions were implemented.

'Unequivocal message'

On Tuesday Mr Katz said a $60m expansion plan would see the population in the Golan Heights rise by 50% over three years.

The goal is for al-Assad to see from the windows of his home the Israeli Golan thriving and flourishing
Yisrael Katz

"The aim is to send an unequivocal message: the Golan is an integral part of Israel," Mr Katz said.

He also charged that Syria "on one hand announces that it is interested in peace, and on the other hand openly supports Palestinian terror".

Damascus reacted angrily to the latest move, saying Israel was "deluded that it can achieve something by relying on power and occupation".

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has only recently called for renewed talks over the possible return of the Golan.

Syria denies that it supports terrorism, saying Palestinian militant groups had only information offices in Damascus and even those had been shut down.

Mr Katz's comments also drew harsh criticism from the Palestinian Authority and from France.

Water resources

There are currently 31 settlements in the Golan Heights with about 10,500 inhabitants.

The Heights were occupied by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and were annexed in 1981.

They are a grassy plateau overlooking north-eastern Israel and south-east Syria and have important water resources - providing Israel with a third of its water needs.


SEE ALSO:
Golan settlement plan under fire
31 Dec 03  |  Middle East
Country profile: Syria
15 Sep 03  |  Country profiles
War of words over Golan
31 Dec 03  |  Middle East
Israeli MP 'to probe Syria offer'
30 Dec 03  |  Middle East


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