Arabs want ban on aid used to build settlements


THE Arab League yesterday asked the international community to stop financing Israeli construction of settlements on occupied Arab land.

In a statement read by a Palestinian delegate, Mr Mohammad Sobeih, the 22 member organisation called "on all countries to stop any financial aid capable of being used for settlements".

During the meeting, the Syrian government also called on Arab states to freeze relations with Israel, as agreed in Cairo at last June's Arab summit, when leaders linked normalisation of relations with Israel to progress on the peace process.

"Arabs and the Palestinians will not settle for anything less than the handover of all occupied lands for peace, and Israel will find itself in severe isolation if it does not do that," said the statement. "If Israel refuses this [land for peace] principle, on which the peace process is based, the current peace march will stop."

The emergency session of the Arab League, called by the Palestinian Authority and Syria to discuss the expansion of settlements, was the second in only a week, reflecting a deepening sense of alarm in the Arab world at the state of the Middle East peace process.

The meeting also showed Arab frustration with the international community for failing to do more - to help the peace process. "Why were international resolutions enforced on Bosnia, Cambodia and Africa and on Iraq, while they are not imposed on Israel?" asked Mr Issa Darwish, Syria's representative to the league.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, enraged Arabs with his decision to lift a freeze on settlement building imposed by the previous government. His defiantly high profile visit to the Ariel settlement last Tuesday, only one day after the Palestinian Authority called for a halt on all settlement activity, led to widespread condemnation throughout the Arab world.

But the Israeli leadership appears impervious to criticism from its Arab counterparts. In response to a message last week from the Egyptian president warning that any new settlements would threaten Israel's peace treaties with its neighbours, Mr Netanyahu told Israeli television: "I clarified to President Mubarak that our policy on our right to settle and to build, the existing settlements is a policy that is in line with peace.

Coinciding with the Arab League meeting was a visit to the Egyptian capital by the Palestinian President, Mr Yasser Arafat, for private talks with Mr Mubarak, on the stalled negotiations on the redeployment of Israeli troops from Hebron.

"We face many difficulties in our talks with the Israeli side, which is trying to avoid accurate and honest implementation of what has been agreed upon," Mr Arafat said before the meeting.