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Israel Reports Surge of Settlements Construction in Occupied Territories - 2004-03-02

Israel says construction of Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory increased 35 percent last year, even though the "road map" peace plan calls for Israel to freeze such activities.

The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics said Tuesday that Israel built 1,850 residential units in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 2003. The United States, along with other countries, has criticized the expansion of settlements.

Meanwhile, senior aides to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met in Washington Monday with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Israeli officials say they discussed Mr. Sharon's plan to dismantle some Jewish settlements in the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank, while maintaining Israeli control of other areas.

In other developments, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia says President Yasser Arafat has accepted a key reform demanded by donor countries. The Prime Minister says Palestinian security forces will now be paid through banks instead of in cash, in a move to increase transparency in the Palestinian Authority.

Earlier Tuesday, a long-time adviser to Mr. Arafat was killed by masked gunmen in Gaza City. Khalil al-Zaben was the publisher of a magazine on Palestinian affairs and human rights and often advised Mr. Arafat. President Arafat denounced the killing as a "dirty assassination."

Mr. al-Zaben's killing is the latest in a string of violent confrontations among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Concerns are growing about increased crime and political infighting ahead of a possible Israeli pull-out from most of the Gaza Strip.

Some information for this report provided by AP and Reuters.