PM completely freezes new construction in W. Bank settlements

By Nadav Shragai, Haaretz Correspondent 
Israel has completely frozen all new construction in West Bank settlements, despite recent comments by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Israel would treat construction in the major settlement blocs differently from building in most settlements.
Olmert has categorically denied approval for all new construction tenders, including in the so-called consensus settlement blocs, which Israel intends to keep in any future peace accord with the Palestinians.
The freeze also applies to the construction of public institutions, including schools and kindergartens. 
Olmert recently sent an official letter to relevant cabinet ministers instructing them to refrain from authorizing any construction in the West Bank without his and Defense Minister Ehud Barak's prior approval.
Several days ago, the prime minister met with Ma'aleh Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel, who asked Olmert to approve several construction plans -including in the controversial E1 corridor linking Ma'aleh Adumim to Jerusalem.
Olmert refused, saying the issue was sensitive in terms of relations with the United States and the Palestinian Authority.
Kashriel also asked Olmert to approve tenders for the completion of the settlement's 07 neighborhood. Barak approved the construction during his term as prime minister, and the new neighborhood was to have a total …

Hamas 'Spent Months Cutting Through

Israel wants to abandon all responsibility for the Gaza Strip, including the supply of electricity and water, now that the territory's southern border with Egypt has been blasted open, Israel's deputy defense minister said Thursday.
It was not immediately clear whether the minister, Matan Vilnai, was expressing the view of the Israeli government, or was testing international receptiveness to such idea.
As tens of thousands of Palestinians clamber back and forth between the Gaza strip and Egypt, details have emerged of the audacious operation that brought down the hated border wall and handed the Islamist group Hamas what might be its greatest propaganda coup, the London Times reported Thursday.
Click here to read the London Times report.
Hamas, which took control of the coastal territory last June after a stand-off with Fatah, has denied that its men set off the explosions that brought down as much as two-thirds of the 12-km wall in the early hours.
But a Hamas border guard interviewed by The London Times at the border admitted that the Islamist group was responsible and had been involved for months in slicing through the heavy metal wall using oxy-acetylene cutting torches.
That meant that when the explosive charges …

Palestinian forces enter Jordan under U.S. program

By Adam Entous
ALLENBY BRIDGE, West Bank (Reuters) – The first battalion of Palestinian security forces crossed into Jordan on Thursday to begin training under a U.S. program after nearly a year-long delay.
Washington wants to train the backbone of a Palestinian gendarmerie but the program is projected to graduate only 2,000 men in 2008, the timeframe set by President George W. Bush for reaching an agreement on a Palestinian state.
The first battalion of nearly 700 U.S.-screened recruits to serve in an overhauled National Security Force crossed the Israeli-controlled Allenby Bridge, in the occupied West Bank, into Jordan for what officials called “law and order” training.
The eventual plan is for a nearly 50,000-member gendarmerie in the West Bank.
The slow start to the U.S. program could compound doubts about peace efforts that largely hinge on convincing Israel that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can combat militants before its army leaves occupied land, Western officials said.
U.S. government documents show the four-month-long courses, at a facility in Jordan already used by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces, will focus on law and order and policing training. None of the instructors will be U.S. government personnel.Palestinian and many Western observers blame Israel for undermining …

Balloon for each Kassam on UN doorstep

Itamar Sharon
As the United Nations Security Council debated a response to the situation in the Gaza Strip and Sderot, Israel's New York Consulate held a protest in front of UN headquarters on Thursday, in which they placed 4,200 red balloons on the UN's doorstep. The number of balloons signified the 4,200 Kassam rockets fired into Israel from Gaza since the 2005 disengagement from the Strip.
The display was meant to raise world awareness to the fact that Israel's actions in the Gaza Strip are part of an effort to end the rocket attacks, the consulate said in a statement.
“Up until this day, every attempt to raise the issue and make it part of the American media's agenda has been unsuccessful,” Consulate Spokesman David Saranga said.
“The suffering of Gaza residents has received increased attention recently. The display is intended to emphasize the suffering of the residents of Sderot [and to] illustrate the incessant Kassam rocket attacks, as well as to call on the international community to stop ignoring what is happening in Israel,” Saranga explained.
Meanwhile, as the New York Consulate was staging the protest, five rockets were fired from Gaza into the western Negev. The rockets hit …

The audacity of truth

By Caroline B. Glick 
It is hard to believe, but in just two weeks, American voters will all but determine the identities of the Democratic and Republican nominees for this year's presidential elections. It is hard to believe because today, after a handful of early primaries, neither side has even identified a frontrunner.
The open race, unprecedented in recent history, is a consequence of the fragmentation of America's political center. Ten years after Bill Clinton's impeachment; seven years after President George W. Bush's contested victory in 2000; and five years into the Iraq campaign, the cleavages both between the two major parties and within them have given purchase to candidates and policies that would have previously never made it out of the starting gate.
On the Republican side, this phenomenon is being played out in the campaigns of Congressman Ron Paul and Governor Mike Huckabee. On the Democratic side of the aisle, it is manifested in Senator Barack Obama's campaign.
Last Saturday Congressman Paul placed second in the Nevada primaries with 14 percent of the vote. Paul, who has raised some $20 million in three months, owes much of his mainstream support on both the Left and the Right to …

Iran receives 6th shipment of Russian nuclear fuel

 IRNA reports 11-ton load of enriched uranium transferred to the light-water Bushehr nuclear power plant
TEHRAN, Iran – Iran received a sixth shipment of nuclear fuel Thursday from Russia, destined for a power plant being constructed in the southern port of Bushehr, the official IRNA news agency reported. 
The report said the 11-ton load of enriched uranium arrived in Iran and was transferred to the light-water Bushehr nuclear power plant Thursday morning. The remainder of the fuel will arrive in two separate shipments in the coming weeks, it said. 
“Of 82 tons of initial fuel needed for the Bushehr nuclear power plant, 66 tons have been shipped to Iran so far,” the agency reported. 
Iran received the fifth shipment of nuclear fuel from Russia on Tuesday. The first shipment arrived on Dec. 17 after months of dispute between the two countries, allegedly over delayed construction payments for the reactor. 
Iran has said Bushehr, the country's first nuclear reactor, will begin operating in the summer of 2008, producing half its 1,000-megawatt capacity of electricity. Russia's decision to ship nuclear fuel to Iran follows a US Intelligence report released last month that concluded Tehran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in late …