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Sharon wants to expand Jewish settlements in Hebron vicinity

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday called for expanding the size of Jewish settlements in and around Hebron _ one of the most volatile and divided cities in the West Bank _ as a way to boost security by linking together Jewish communities and neighborhoods.

The proposal, which Sharon mentioned during meetings in Hebron with Israeli military commanders, followed an attack in the city Friday night in which Palestinian militants killed 12 Israeli military, border patrol and settlement security officers.

The Israeli government initially said the attack was a massacre of worshipers walking home to Kiryat Arba, a Jewish settlement about a half mile east of Hebron, after they had marked the start of the Sabbath at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a shrine in Hebron's old city revered by Muslims and Jews. That account has been discredited by Israeli military commanders at the scene and settlement leaders.

On Sunday, Sharon proposed linking Kiryat Arba with the shrine by expanding settlements in between and effectively creating a long corridor that would be occupied and controlled by Israel, Israeli radio reported. The idea runs counter to demands by the Bush administration that Israel freeze settlement activity and begin to dismantle illegal settlements _ known as "outposts" _ that have proliferated in recent years.

Meanwhile on Sunday, Israeli helicopters fired rockets and machine-gun rounds at a training base of the Palestinian security forces in Gaza City, but there were no immediate reports of casualties, witnesses and Palestinian security officials said.

The attack was carried out by two helicopters near homes in the Tel al Awar neighborhood, the witnesses and security officials said.

Rescue services were unable to approach the burning building because of continued machine-gun fire from the helicopters.

Polls show that the vast majority of Israelis do not support settlement expansion and want most settlements dismantled, saying they are a key barrier to peace with the Palestinians and a lightning rod for violence against Israeli civilians.

Dror Etkes, who monitors settlement expansion for Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes settlements, called Sharon's proposal "outrageous," pointing out that thousands of Palestinians live in the area Sharon wants to expropriate.

Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian cabinet minister for local government, said that "if they carry out this settlement expansion or linkage, it's just adding fuel to the fire that will lead to a major explosion (of violence) in that area. It's crazy."

The settlement expansion proposal was not fully explained. According to Israeli radio, Sharon said the aim of the plan was to ensure territorial continuity between Kiryat Arba and the Jewish section of Hebron, where the Tomb of the Patriarchs is located. The city is home to about 130,000 Palestinians and 450 Israelis who live in settlement enclaves that are heavily guarded by Israeli soldiers.

Sharon said there would be no change in prayer arrangements at the tomb, which, according to religious teachings, is the site where Abraham and his family were buried and has separate areas where Jews and Muslims pray.

Sunday, Jewish settlers moved three shipping containers into a lot near the scene of Friday's killings _ a few dozen yards from Kiryat Arba _ and declared it a new outpost.

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