Tensions escalate over Jerusalem Arafat calls for strike, defiance of Israeli travel restrictions

August 29, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF Joshua Brilliant of the Jerusalem bureau contributed to this article.

JERUSALEM -- Angered by the latest plan to expand Jewish settlements and the demolition of a building in Arab East Jerusalem, Yasser Arafat accused Israel yesterday of "declaring war on the Palestinian people."

He called for a general strike today in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the first such action since Israel handed over control of much of the area to the Palestinian authority in 1993.

Arafat urged Palestinians to descend on East Jerusalem tomorrow to pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam. The move would defy Israeli restrictions on travel by Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza that were imposed after terrorist bus bombings killed scores of people this year.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu countered with tough talk. The government "will gravely consider any attempt to bring about an escalation or violence which may harm the peace process," Netanyahu said in a statement.

The exchanges came amid escalating anger on both sides and growing anxiety about the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which has deteriorated since the election of Netanyahu's hard-line government in May.

The latest confrontations focus on the future of Jerusalem, the thorniest issue still to be negotiated by the two sides, each of which claims the holy city as its capital.

"Israel has started the war on Jerusalem," Arafat said. "They are idiots to have started the Jerusalem battle. There will be no Palestinian state without Jerusalem. Netanyahu should know he is stupid to have started this battle."

Palestinians view the announcement that Israel will add 900 housing units to a settlement northwest of Jerusalem as the latest provocation. The Netanyahu government has eased building restrictions on Jewish settlements, and Palestinian officials and Arab leaders have said the new settlement policy threatens the peace process.

Before dawn Tuesday, Jerusalem officials used a crane to hoist a bulldozer over the walls of the Old City and razed a Palestinian community center that they said had been renovated without a permit.

Center organizers acknowledge that they did not have a restoration permit, but they said city officials had told them the building needed restoration and that they proceeded with the work once they had the money to pay for it.

Naela Ayed, a volunteer with the nonprofit group that operated the center, said the demolition was part of a greater strategy to "Judaize" Jerusalem.

"The municipality says this is not politically motivated. We say this is politically motivated," Ayed said. "They want to make life as hard as possible for Palestinians in the Old City and in Jerusalem. It is a means of reducing the number of Palestinians in Jerusalem."

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert called the restoration "an outright provocation." He said center operators knew the building had been slated for demolition. "All that they say about the building is one big lie," he told Israel radio.

Several incidents have fed passions on both sides.

Twice in the past week, Israel delayed giving Arafat's helicopters permission to fly from Gaza over Israel to the West Bank.

Furniture was confiscated from the home of a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. City officials said Hatem Abdul Khader owed the city eight years' back taxes. Khader recently bucked attempts by the city to keep him from seeing constituents at his home.

Netanyahu has insisted that the peace accords prohibit the Palestinian authority from conducting business in Jerusalem. He has refused to move on the redeployment of Israeli troops in Hebron until Palestinian offices in the city are closed.

This week, the Palestinian authority said it had closed two offices so the Israelis could no longer delay a decision on Hebron.

Some Israelis were working to calm the situation yesterday.

Israel's foreign minister, David Levy, telephoned Arafat to defuse the tension, according to Israel radio. Levy promised the Palestinian leader that the top Palestinian-Israeli negotiating committee would meet within four days.

He also reportedly called the Jordanian prime minister, Abdul Karim al-Kabariti, who is to meet Arafat today in the West Bank, to help calm the situation.

Israel's public security minister, Avigdor Kahalani, called on Arafat to cancel the strike.

Pub Date: 8/29/96

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