NEVE DANIEL, West Bank (AFP) — Former US president Jimmy Carter on Sunday made a rare visit to a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank which he said "will be here for ever," despite Palestinian claims to the territory.
Carter, a staunch opponent of the settlements, travelled to Neve Daniel in Gush Etzion, a large settlement bloc south of Jerusalem which Israel hopes to keep in any future Middle East peace deal.
He said he came "to make sure they (the settlers) understand my own attitude towards Israel, the Jewish population across the world and the Jewish settlements."
Speaking at the end of a meeting with Shaul Goldstein, the head of the Gush Etzion regional council, Carter said that the settlement bloc would remain under Israeli control.
"This particular settlement area is not one that I can envision ever being abandoned or changed over into Palestinian territory. This is part of settlements close to the 1967 (border) line that I think will be here for ever," he said in the garden of Goldstein's house.
Carter also met local families who have lost relatives in Palestinian attacks.
"I recognise the suffering that takes place in an area where strife, misunderstanding and animosity still exist," he said.
The former president, who brokered the historic peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979, said earlier in an interview that the settlements were the biggest hurdle in the hobbled Middle East peace process and were illegal.
The administration of US President Barack Obama has repeatedly called on Israel to halt all settlement activity in the occupied West Bank as part of efforts to create a viable Palestinian state.
But hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far refused to freeze construction in settlement blocs or endorse a Palestinian state, raising tensions with the Jewish state's most important ally the United States.
"I hope that in the future we will see accommodation between Israel and the United States and between Israel and the people of Palestine in finding peace," said the 85-year-old former president.
He earlier warned in an interview with the liberal Haaretz newspaper that Israel is headed for a clash with the United States over the issue of settlements.
Carter, on a tour of the region that has taken him to Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian territories, also planned to visit the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip later this week.
"The most important element of my life in the last 30 years has been to bring peace to the people of Israel and security. Along with that, obviously, has to come peace and security to Israel's neighbours," Carter said.
Goldstein briefed Carter on joint Israeli-Palestinian projects in the region and on the history of the Jewish community in the Gush Etzion before the creation of the Jewish state in 1948.
"This is our homeland but we recognise that there are other people living next to us," Goldstein said.
"We believe in human rights and we suffer when they suffer," he added of the Palestinians.
The Palestinians consider the presence of upwards of 280,000 Jewish settlers in more than 100 settlements across the West Bank to be one of the greatest obstacles in the Middle East peace process.
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