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Israel OKs 117 houses for heart of West Bank

JERUSALEM — Israel has approved construction of 117 houses in the Ariel settlement in the heart of the West Bank, the government said Tuesday, signaling it will not relinquish the sprawling community that Palestinians complain would cut up their future state.

The announcement — and suggestions that much larger construction projects are in the pipeline — came despite the risk of a U.S. reprimand, just as Israel was reaping the diplomatic benefits of its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

In Gaza, the first clash between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian demonstrators since Israel emptied its settlements there resulted in the death of a Palestinian.

Witnesses said dozens of young Palestinians marched on an empty settlement, and Palestinian police tried to stop them. An Israeli tank approached, and some youths threw rocks at it while others stormed into the settlement, Neve Dekalim. Soldiers opened fire, killing one and wounding three others, doctors said.

The Israeli military said soldiers opened fire after 40 to 50 youths ran into the settlement and others climbed on the tank. TV footage showed youths pelting the tank with rocks, then tearing down the fence around the settlement and racing inside.

Although Israel has removed its settlers and torn down houses, the Israeli military retains control of the settlement areas until the formal handover, expected about Sept. 15. Synagogues and some military bases are still intact there.

On Tuesday, Israel's Supreme Court stepped into the emotional conflict over whether the Gaza synagogues should be torn down, ordering the government to check into whether the Palestinian Authority, the United States or the United Nations would be willing to preserve the buildings. Rabbis say Jewish law bans destruction of synagogues.

The renewed talk about settlement expansion apparently was part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's attempt to recapture support in his Likud Party after the Gaza pullout. Addressing Likud mayors Monday, Sharon boasted that he built more homes in large West Bank settlements than any other Israeli leader.

The United States has urged Israel not to expand West Bank settlements, in line with a construction freeze under the internationally backed "road map" peace plan. However, in selling the Gaza pullout to his public, Sharon has said it would allow Israel to strengthen its hold over Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank. The United States, along with the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, has repeatedly demanded Israel freeze all settlement expansion.