updated 12/14/2005 8:11:39 AM ET 2005-12-14T13:11:39

Israel has approved construction of hundreds of new homes in West Bank settlements, the Defense Ministry said Wednesday, confirming what would be a violation of the U.S.-backed peace plan.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon scrambled to contain a political uproar following a Newsweek report quoting a Sharon aide as saying the prime minister would be willing to cede 90 percent of the West Bank and part of Jerusalem. Sharon’s aides denied the report, but his hard-line opponents said it revealed the prime minister’s true intentions.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz approved the new settlement homes in the past week, a defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Mofaz made the decision shortly before leaving the hard-line Likud Party to join Sharon’s new centrist party, Kadima. The Yediot Ahronot daily said Mofaz initially approved the housing to shore up support within Likud at a time when he was seeking party leadership. But he ended up joining Kadima after trailing badly in Likud polls.

Peace map demands construction freeze
The U.S.-backed road map peace plan aims for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. In the interim, Israel is required to freeze construction in all Jewish settlements, including the largest ones that it says it wants to hold onto under a future peace deal.

However, Israel has not fulfilled this commitment, and construction has continued since the road map was approved in June 2003. The Palestinians also have failed to meet their obligation to dismantle armed militant groups.

Asked for comment, U.S. Embassy spokesman Stewart Tuttle reiterated Washington’s position that Israel must “stop the settlement expansion in addition to removing illegal outposts.”

Sharon left Likud, his political home for 30 years, last month to form Kadima, saying he would have more flexibility to negotiate a peace agreement on the basis of the road map.

While this would mean ceding West Bank territory to the Palestinians, Sharon also has said he intends to retain large blocs of settlements — most of them near the boundary with Israel.

The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank along with the Gaza Strip, which Israel evacuated in September, as part of a future state.

Fighting erupts amid Palestinian factions
In Gaza City, fighting erupted ahead of a midnight deadline for all Palestinian parties to announce their lists of candidates.

Gunmen exchanged fire outside the headquarters of the ruling Fatah Party, as tensions heightened within Fatah over candidate selection for Jan. 25 parliament elections.

Three people were wounded in the firefight, in which gunmen from rival Fatah groups ran up and down a Gaza City street, shooting wildly into the air. The incident began when a group of armed Fatah activists took over party headquarters in Gaza City, demanding government jobs. Bodyguards of a local Fatah leader arrived and drove the protesters out of the building.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Israel’s new construction “undermines the vision of a two-state solution.”

“This is a clear-cut violation of the road map ... and I really hope that President Bush will personally take note of that,” he said.

Nearly all of the new housing approved by Mofaz lies within the blocs that Sharon wants to retain, though they also include dozens of homes in smaller communities of Bracha and Nokdim deep in the West Bank.

The other houses include 200 homes in Maaleh Adumim, Israel’s largest settlement, and 40 trailers in Ariel, another large settlement deep in the West Bank, ministry officials said. In addition, Mofaz agreed to advance construction plans in Givat Zeev and Beitar Illit, two large settlements near Jerusalem, the ministry said.

Sharon’s new party is expected to win elections in March, with Likud trailing far behind in opinion polls. Critics in the Likud say Sharon is planning major concessions to the Palestinians.

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