Israeli bulldozers break ground on E. Jerusalem housing project No violence reported as Palestinians denounce settlement from hilltop

March 19, 1997|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Amid heavy security, Israel began work as promised on a controversial housing settlement in Arab East Jerusalem yesterday while Palestinians peacefully denounced the project from their perch on a nearby hilltop.

Four bulldozers cut through the rocky slopes of the mountain Jews know as Har Homa. No incidents occurred there, despite warnings that the equipment's arrival would provoke violence. But the military kept most Palestinians from the site.

When the bulldozers left the site around dusk, a small group of youngsters threw stones at the departing equipment. There were no injuries.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said emphatically last night that the prospect of violence remains very real.

"Our intelligence shows very clearly, unmistakably, that the Palestinian leadership has given the green light to the worst terrorist organizations on earth to go ahead with the kind of bus bombings, the kind of suicide attacks, the kind of mass killings that brought a halt to the peace process," Netanyahu said in a live television interview.

"Now I urge them, I call on them and I demand from them to reverse these decisions immediately," he said.

However, Voice of Palestine radio reported last night that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat appealed to his people to remain calm.

Asked if he had implored people not to use violence, Arafat told reporters in Gaza, "I have done it."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns rejected the Israeli accusation, saying he had seen no evidence that Arafat had approved violence. Burns said the United States has assurances from Arafat that "he stands against violence."

The housing project at Har Homa is the latest flash point in the battle over the future of Jerusalem.

The 6,500-unit development will occupy a parcel of land actually owned mostly by Jews. But it is nestled between the Arab village of Um Tuba and the Palestinian city of Bethlehem. Palestinians have accused Israel of using the project to gain greater control of the city. They want Arab East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Israel maintains that it has every right to build in the city. To try to appease Palestinians and deflect international criticism, Israel also approved plans for the construction of 3,015 housing units in 10 Arab neighborhoods in the city.

Under the 1993 peace accords with the Palestinians, the future of Jerusalem and the status of Jewish settlements on the West Bank are to be decided in final-status talks that were supposed to begin Monday.

"Occupation is physical slavery. We are fed up with occupation. It is simple as that. We want to be free," said Salah Ta'amari, a Palestinian Legislative Council member who helped erect the protest tents on a hillside overlooking Jabal Abu Ghneim, the Arab name for the mountain.

Tensions have been mounting since Israel approved construction of the settlement two weeks ago. King Hussein of Jordan, here Sunday on a condolence visit to the families of seven Israeli schoolgirls killed in an incident on the Israel-Jordan border, tried to broker a meeting between Arafat and Netanyahu. The two spoke on the phone, but no meeting materialized.

To ease the tensions, Israel gave the long-awaited go-ahead for Arafat to use the Palestinian airport in Gaza for his personal flights. But yesterday, Ahmed Qreie, the head of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said the gesture was insufficient.

"We don't want the seaport. We don't want the airport. We want the land," he said. "We want to stop the settlements. We cannot live with it."

Pub Date: 3/19/97

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