Israeli, Palestinian Officials Meet in Effort to Calm Tension

Israeli and Palestinian officials held a series of contacts Thursday aimed at easing the escalating tensions between the two sides.

A day after Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat accused Israel of declaring war on the Palestinians, he met with attorney Yitzhak Molcho, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian sources said.

The prime minister’s senior political adviser, Dore Gold, was also expected to meet Thursday night with Abu Mazen, an adviser to Arafat.

Gold was in Paris earlier this week for talks with Egyptian and American officials on advancing the peace process.

And in Jerusalem, a meeting took place between the heads of the Israeli- Palestinian steering committee, which oversees implementation of the self-rule agreements.

Former Israel Defense Force Chief of Staff Dan Shomron, and Palestinian Interior Minister Saeb Erekat decided during their meeting to convene the committee regularly, beginning next week. It would be the first meeting of the committee since the Likud government came to power in June.

Our role “is to solve problems and to continue the peace process, to do this in a good spirit,” Shomron told reporters.

“We have the ability to advance all the issues that today are found at different levels of implementation.”

While Erekat agreed that their talks had taken place in a good atmosphere, he stressed that the real test of progress would be implementation of agreements.

“The peace process will be judged not in accordance with press conferences given by us but through the implementation of the agreements on the ground,” Erekat said.

While the meeting was scheduled before this week’s incidents that led to increasing tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, it quickly was viewed as an effort to ease the situation. Tensions flared this week after Arafat condemned Israel’s decision to expand the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Sefer, and the demolition of a Palestinian community center in eastern Jerusalem.

The settlement building plans approved by Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordecai were frozen under the previous Labor government.

The Palestinian Authority views settlement expansion as a violation of the accords signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Israel said the building bulldozed in Jerusalem’s Old City was constructed illegally with Palestinian Authority funds.

Palestinians, at Arafat’s urging, staged a four-hour strike in eastern Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Thursday to protest these actions. In Hebron, a partial commercial strike was observed.

Arafat called on Palestinians to participate in mass prayers at Al Aksa mosque on the Temple Mount on Friday, despite the ongoing closure of the West Bank and Gaza. The closure, imposed in February after the first of a series of suicide bombings in Israel, was eased in recent weeks to allow some 35,000 Palestinians to get to work.

Israeli police were put on alert to prevent disturbances.

Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani said security had been stepped up along the boundary with the territories, and that reinforcements were being stationed in Jerusalem to keep order.

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