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Middle East

Israel's Move to Build Homes Riles Palestinians

Israel said Tuesday it is seeking bids to build hundreds of new homes in a disputed East Jerusalem neighborhood, drawing Palestinian condemnations that the move undermines recent peace talks.

A delegation of officials from Israel and dozens of Arab states joined a U.S.-led conference for Mideast peace last week in Annapolis, Md.

A Housing Ministry spokesman said 307 units would be built in Har Homa, a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

Israel captured the eastern part of the city in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed the area. The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he sent an urgent message to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, asking her to block the project from moving forward.

"This is undermining Annapolis," he said, referring to the summit last week, the first negotiation effort launched by the U.S. in seven years.

The two sides agreed to base their peace talks on the U.S.-backed "road map," a peace plan that calls on Israel to halt all settlement construction.

The Palestinians consider any construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be settlement activity. Israel says the settlement freeze does not apply to Jerusalem.

"Israel makes a clear distinction between the West Bank and Jerusalem," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "Israel has never made a commitment to limit our sovereignty in Jerusalem. Implementation of the first phase of the road map does not apply to Jerusalem."

Meanwhile, Israel's defense minister said it is time to "kill those who carry out attacks" against Israelis, but said he was holding off on a wide-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip for now.

In a rare interview, Defense Minister Ehud Barak also rejected calls from some members of his Labor Party to talk to Gaza's Islamic Hamas rulers, telling Army Radio that Israeli troops had killed 27 Gaza militants in the past 10 days and would continue to aggressively chase down those operating under Hamas' watch.

"I do not agree with the assessment that the time has come to talk to Hamas. Now is the time to kill those who carry out attacks and those firing Qassams (rockets) and mortars," Barak said.

Hamas took control of Gaza in June after overrunning the rival Fatah forces of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel has tried to bolster Abbas, who now rules from the West Bank, and isolate Hamas. But Israeli airstrikes and pinpoint ground operations have failed to halt the rocket and mortar fire from Gaza. While smaller groups have fired most of the rockets, Israel holds Hamas responsible for the attacks.

Early Tuesday, an Israeli airstrike on a Hamas police post in central Gaza killed three militants and wounded a fourth, Hamas and Palestinian medical officials said. The army confirmed the attack.

Barak, a former military chief, has repeatedly hinted that Israel was on the verge of invading Gaza to stop the nearly daily rocket fire at towns in southern Israel.

Analysts have speculated that Barak wanted to wait until the conclusion of the Annapolis conference. But when asked about the army's plans, Barak ruled out an immediate broad operation.

"The moment has not arrived yet and I hope that it does not arrive, but it is true that we are preparing and need to prepare for a wide range of possibilities," he said. "Every day that passes, we get closer to a wide-scale operation in Gaza, but we are not eager for it."

With frustration mounting, a number of Israeli officials and retired generals, including some within Barak's centrist Labor party, have called recently for Israel to negotiate directly with Hamas.

Olmert, like Barak, rejects dialogue with Hamas, which Israel and the U.S. consider a terrorist group.

Hamas officials said the calls for dialogue were not serious.

"Israel is practicing a series of crimes and continuous escalation against our people," said Taher Nunu, Hamas government spokesman in Gaza.

Abbas claims to have authority over the Gaza Strip but in reality, he wields little control over militants there, raising questions about his ability to carry out a peace agreement.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press