Hollande calls for complete halt to Israeli settlement activities
French President Francois Hollande on Monday called for a complete halt to Israel'ssettlement activities, declaring them harmful to peace efforts.
In a speech after talks in the West Bank city of Ramallah with his Palestinian counterpart Mahmud Abbas, the French leader made an unequivocal demand for Israel to stop building on land seized in the 1967 Six-Day War.
"France demands a full and complete halt to settlement activity," Hollande said on his first official visit to the Palestinian territories.
"Settlement activity complicates the negotiations and makes it difficult to achieve a two-state solution," he said a day after talks in Israel focused heavily on the Iran nuclear issue.
Since direct peace negotiations resumed in the summer, after being stalled for nearly three years, Israel has announced thousands of new settler homes in a move which has angered Ramallah and taken the talks close to collapse.
A previous round of talks in 2010 fell apart just weeks after the start, in a bitter row over Israeli construction on land the Palestinians want for a future state.
Hollande had raised the settlement issue on Sunday but in much softer language, saying he expected Israel to make "gestures" on settlement activity in order to advance peace negotiations which began in late July but which have made little apparent progress.
"If you want peace, you need to have gestures towards peace," he said.
But he made clear that France also expected "efforts" from the Palestinians.
"It is clear that this will require efforts from the Palestinians as a number of Israeli settlements will remain," a member of Hollande's entourage said.
Last week, Israeli plans to build another 20,000 new settler homes sparked the resignation of the entire Palestinian negotiating team, although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly rescinded the move in the face of international criticism.
On arrival on Monday at the Muqataa presidential compound, a brief 15-minute drive from Jerusalem, Hollande paid his respects at the tomb of Yasser Arafat, who died nine years ago under mysterious circumstances which Swiss experts now say was probably due to poisoning.
Hollande then met Abbas for talks in which he presented a budgetary support package worth 10 million euros, a training programme for Palestinian Authority staff and confirmed the opening of a French high school in Ramallah.
Paris is one of the biggest international donors to Abbas's Palestinian Authority which rules the West Bank, providing some 50 million euros per year through the European Union and various development programmes.
On his return to Jerusalem, Hollande will address the Israeli parliament in a speech aimed at reaffirming France's commitment to Israel's security.
The speech will also deliver a "strong message" on the peace process and a "very clear message" on Iran's nuclear programme, French officials said.
Hollande had on Sunday reiterated "unwavering support" for Israel and vowed that Paris would not yield on the Iranian nuclear issue.
"For France, as long as we are not certain that Iran has decided to give up on nuclear weapons, we will continue with all our demands and with sanctions," he said.
Hollande's visit comes three days before the P5+1 group of world powers are to resume talks with Iran in Geneva on a deal to scale back Tehran's nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.
A previous round of talks ended on November 10 without agreement, with France taking a tougher stance than its Western partners in a move which won much praise in Israel.
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