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Palestinian Protest in Gaza Delays Resumption of Talks

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were set this week to resume discussions on Hebron in an atmosphere made tense by what Israel said was a Palestinian provocation.

On Sunday, hundreds of Palestinian motorists blocked an intersection approaching the isolated Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinians said the move was to protest travel restrictions, imposed by Israel after an Arab suicide bomber on a bicycle killed himself and three Israelis near the settlement in 1994. Israel has prohibited Palestinians from using the road near the settlement.

The head of the Israel Defense Force southern command, Maj. Gen. Shlomo Yanai, said that in contacts with Palestinian police, it became clear that Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat had given the order to block the road, to protest the travel restrictions.

“I don’t know how involved he was in the technical details, but I know he did give the instruction to block the highway” and direct Palestinians toward the settlement, Yanai told Israel Radio.

The intersection was reopened to traffic Monday, and IDF reinforcements were stationed around the area in what Yanai said was intended as a clear message to Palestinians not to try to repeat the previous day’s protest.

The Israeli-Palestinian talks on implementing a redeployment of Israeli forces in Hebron, now in their eighth week, have narrowed to resolving Israel’s demand that its forces maintain the right to pursue suspected Arab terrorists in areas of Hebron that are to be transferred to Palestinian control.

The talks had been scheduled to resume Sunday evening, but were canceled because of the incident at Netzarim, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu said he told Arafat in a telephone conversation that the incident was “a Palestinian attempt to heat up the strip” near Netzarim, and was an indication of the Palestinians’ “lack of desire to conclude the negotiations.”

On recent reports that his government has approved plans to build new settlements on the Golan Heights, Netanyahu said there were no plans for new construction, but the policy to allow the growth of existing settlements still held for the Golan as it does for the West Bank and Gaza.

“The decision of building new settlements has never been made,” Netanyahu said.

His remarks came after the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot reported on the planned construction of some 900 housing units in three new Golan settlements.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority sent a letter to Israel this week urging an immediate halt to all settlement activity to avoid “confrontation and disaster.”

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said government-approved plans to build thousands of housing units in West Bank settlements “constitute not only a flagrant violation of the agreement signed, but also a serious threat that will bury the hope of peace.”

Under the agreements signed by the Palestinians and the previous Labor government, the future of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were to be determined in final-status negotiations.

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