A significant gap opened up between the British and US governments on Middle East policy yesterday when Downing Street expressed its continued opposition to any expansion of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian West Bank. Fuelling the controversy, the Israeli government announced plans to build another 533 homes in settlements in the West Bank, in addition to the 1,000 construction tenders approved by the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, last week.
The British government, in a rare departure from Washington, positioned itself alongside its European Union partners on the issue. The EU, unlike Washington, is critical of Israeli behaviour in the West Bank and Gaza.
The US administration signalled at the weekend that it was abandoning its long-term call for a freeze on all settlement activity and would back some limited expansion.
But a Downing Street spokesman said yesterday: "Our position is consistent with the statement put out by the European Union last week, and our view is that the Israelis should freeze all settlements."
The EU had expressed its dismay over new construction in the occupied territories.
The Palestinians claim the presence of the 120-150 Jewish colonies, home to about 200,000 people, makes the creation of a viable Palestinian state impossible in the West Bank.
The total number of permits to build settlement homes in the West Bank this year is 2,167 more than in the previous three years combined.
However, analysts of Israeli expansion claim the latest construction tenders are the tip of the iceberg, and that surveys of infrastructure work and local plans suggest that Israel plans further expansion.
Dror Etkes, the coordinator of Settlement Watch, said: "This is all part of something much bigger. There are dozens of settlements where the land has been bulldozed and roads have been built where the government is just waiting for the right moment to begin house construction.
"This is about redesigning Israel and moving the bulk of it eastwards on to the land on which the Palestinians want to build their state. It is a continuation of a process that has been going on for 40 years."
The boom in the settlement expansion appears to have the tacit endorsement of US president George Bush's administration. In return, Mr Sharon has promised to withdraw from the much smaller number of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.
The scale of building in the West Bank can be seen by the scores of heavy lorries, laden with building materials, which daily progress up from Israel's coastal plain to east Jerusalem and the West Bank. Some are destined for Ma'ale Adumim, an established settlement near Jerusalem with a population of 30,000.
There is large-scale construction going on, despite the apparent existing housing glut: many of the newer neighbourhoods in the settlement appear sparsely populated, while others are empty. Hoardings advertise new developments, even on sites where nothing has been built. Dual carriageways and service roads loop into areas where the earth has been flattened, but no foundations sunk.
The architect-designed houses and lush lawns of Ma'ale Adumim are in stark contrast to the ugly apartment blocks and dusty streets that mark the nearby Arab neighbourhoods.
According to the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, a married Israeli couple who have completed military service and have one child would receive a #25,000 subsidised loan to buy a home in the West Bank, compared with #19,250 in the Negev and #10,875 in Tel Aviv.
Jeff Halper, a veteran Israeli campaigner against the settlement expansion, argues in his book, Obstacles to Peace, that Israel's long-term strategy is to move the centre of gravity of the country from the coastal plain by encouraging more people to live in the West Bank.
This policy also entails the hemming of the Palestinian population into small cantons which have no direct contact with other Palestinian cantons, making a viable state impossible.
The army has agreed to make changes to the route of Israel's separation barrier in 12 areas, Dany Tirza, an official of the Israeli defence ministry said yesterday. The supreme court ruled this summer that the barrier violated the human rights of Palestinians.
The route will be moved towards the "green line," the 1967 border between Israel and the West Bank, Mr Tirza said. The changes will prevent the confiscation of more than 4,000 acres (1,620 hectares) of Palestinian land, he added.