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Syria Condemns Israel's Golan Heights Plan - 2003-12-31

Israel says it plans to double the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied Golan Heights, an area Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. Damascus has condemned the plans, which are likely to further complicate the future of peace talks between Israel and Syria.

Israel's agriculture minister, Yisrael Katz, told Israel radio the government has agreed on a plan to spend more than $50 million during the next three years to strengthen its hold over the Golan Heights by doubling the number of Jewish settlers there.

Mr. Katz said the move would send a clear signal that the Golan is an integral part of Israel.

More than 15,000 Israelis live in the Golan alongside nearly 20,000 Druze Arabs who stayed in the area after Israel captured the plateau in 1967. Israel annexed the Golan in 1981, a move widely condemned by the international community.

The Golan overlooks northeastern Israel, including the Sea of Galilee. It also contains important sources of water and farmland, and is a major tourist attraction.

Previous negotiations between Israel and Syria on the return of the Golan Heights ended without agreement in 1999. Then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was ready to give back almost all of the Golan Heights except for a thin perimeter of land around the banks of the Sea of Galilee. The deal was not acceptable to then Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.

Recently, President Assad's son and successor, President Bashar al-Assad, called for Israel to resume negotiations to return the Golan Heights. Some Israeli officials welcomed the offer, but others dismissed it as a ploy to blunt American criticism of Syria's alleged support of terrorist groups and avoid U.S. sanctions.

The Israeli government rejects the idea of talks with any preconditions, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said Damascus must first stop its support of terrorist groups, including Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

Syria denies that it supports terrorism, but justifies its support for Palestinian groups it says are fighting against Israeli occupation.