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Israel to extend boundaries of Jerusalem

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Defying the United States and angering Palestinians, Israel adopted a plan on Sunday to extend the boundaries of Jerusalem and tighten the city's ties with Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

"The government decided unanimously today to adopt a plan for strengthening Jerusalem," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said against a chorus of criticism from the U.S. State Department, Palestinians, the European Union and Egypt."It does not contain any change in the status of Jerusalem or an unraveling of . . . the Oslo (interim peace) agreements," he said at a hastily called news conference.

Senior Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat called the program a "declaration of war on the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem."

Under the plan, the city will annex land to the west - in Israel proper - and an expanded "umbrella municipality" will adopt administrative powers over nearby Jewish towns, including some in the occupied West Bank.

Unveiling the blueprint on Thursday, Netanyahu said it was aimed in part at strengthening Jerusalem's Jewish majority.

The U.S. State Department on Friday called the move a "provocative step" at a sensitive time in Washington's efforts to end a 15-month impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Britain, which currently holds the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, issued a statement on behalf of the EU expressing concern over "plans which will alter the demographic balance in the Jerusalem area."

Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa described the Israeli program as "another provocation."

Netanyahu accused critics of having "this conditioned reflex to accuse Israel" and describing the controversy as "an artificial storm in an artificial teacup."

"What in heaven's name - how could anyone interpret any of these decisions as political decisions?" he asked at the news conference.

"They are not and I think it's destructive to the peace process that anyone will allow themselves to be taken in, frankly, by this kind of nonsense."