Rather it was the reaction from Washington, or the lack of one, that provoked Palestinian outrage. By refusing to condemn the Israeli decision, the White House appeared to be abandoning one of the central tenets of the joint US, EU, UN and Russian-sponsored roadmap, which requires a freeze on settlement construction.

‘We are currently involved in technical talks with the government of Israel in an effort to clarify their interests with respect to the settlements,’ said a US government spokesman in a carefully worded settlement. ‘A technical team is working with the Israelis in this process. The US will continue to work with the government of Israel on the progress towards the settlement freeze.’

Palestinians, angered by Washington’s tacit approval of the Israeli move and apparent unilateral abandonment of the road map, demanded clarification on the US’ stance. ‘While it [the Israeli government] is talking about evacuating settlements in Gaza, it is expanding all other settlements in the West Bank,’ said an irate Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, attacking the Israeli proposals. ‘This will not bring about stability nor will it bring about peace.’

Tel Aviv’s announcement was made just a day before the Israeli Justice Ministry proposed that the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the transfer of civilians into occupied territory, be applied to the West Bank and Gaza. Israel has consistently denied that the Geneva Convention applies to the Occupied Territories, arguing that they were not sovereign states prior to the Israeli invasion in 1967.

The Justice Ministry recommended the move after the International Court of Justice ruled in July that the convention should apply, but it is highly unlikely that Israeli premier Ariel Sharon would consider reversing a three-decade old policy. ‘It’s about time Israel joined the international community in recognising that the West Bank and Gaza are occupied territories,’ said legal adviser to the Palestinian Authority (PA) Michael Tarazi. ‘However, I don’t expect it to go much further than a recommendation. After 37 years of a belligerent occupation, I don’t expect someone like Ariel Sharon to perform an about-turn.’

In fact, the opposite is more probable. By increasing the number and size of settlements in the West Bank, Israel is attempting to create firm facts on the ground before the start of final status negotiations. And with US presidential elections looming, the current White House administration is unwilling to interfere.