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Peace Process Sinks Deeper As Palestinian Unrest Spreads

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process appeared to be sinking deeper into a morass as Palestinian unrest spread and as Arab states called for turning back the clock on their relations with Israel.

As violent protests against Israel’s construction of a new Jewish neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem entered their second week, clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians erupted in most Palestinian population centers in the West Bank.

Tensions increased Sunday after a Palestinian was killed a day before in the unrest and as Israeli security officials braced for the annual observance of Land Day, when annual protests are held against land expropriations and other Israeli policies.

In Cairo, Arab foreign ministers adopted a resolution Sunday calling on the 22 members of the Arab League to abide by the Arab boycott of Israel in retaliation for the Jewish state’s recent decision to start construction at Har Homa. In recent years, several Arab states have eased the boycott in recognition of Israeli-Palestinian peace moves.

The resolution, which will be presented to each of the ministers’ governments, also calls on Arab states to stop all normalization of ties with Israel, to close Israeli offices and missions in their countries and to suspend the multilateral talks that deal with regional issues such as water, the environment and security.

The resolution was not expected to affect Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, spoke of a “virtual collapse of the peace process” and called for a Palestinian commitment to curb violence and crack down on terror.

“We want to see a peace process where terrorism is simply put out of the picture,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Netanyahu made a similar demand on the Palestinians when he met last week with U.S. Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross, who also held a separate meeting with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat to discuss the rapidly deteriorating situation.

Ross returned to Washington over the weekend to review those discussions with Clinton administration officials.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was expected to visit the region in the near future to present the two sides with a new American initiative aimed at breathing life into the peace process.

The initiative is expected to include the following key points:

Emphasis will be placed on the war against terror. The Palestinian Authority will be required to take real steps on the ground against terrorist organizations and to tighten security cooperation with Israel. The formation of an American-Israeli-Palestinian special forum on the war against terror is under consideration.

Israel will be asked to stop taking unilateral steps while the negotiations are continuing. The United States may ask Israel to freeze the construction work at Har Homa as the talks continue.

A call for accelerated implementation of other aspects of the self-rule accords, including opening a Palestinian airport and seaport in Gaza and creating a safe route passage for Palestinians traveling between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, despite fears in the preceding days, Land Day protests in the main Israeli Arab towns and villages passed quietly Sunday, prompting Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani to praise Israeli Arab leaders for maintaining order.

Netanyahu had appealed to Israeli Arabs to shun violence during the annual protest day, which marks the 1976 killing by Israeli security forces of six Israeli Arabs protesting against land expropriations in the Galilee.

In the West Bank, however, violent protests continued, and the Israel Defense Force stationed tanks and reinforcements around the major West Bank towns to prevent an escalation of the violence.

The most serious clashes took place Sunday around Nablus, Jenin and Hebron, where dozens of Arabs were wounded by rubber bullets fired by Israeli troops in an effort to disperse the protesters.

In Nablus, Palestinian police set up barricades and fired into the air to prevent demonstrators from charging Joseph’s Tomb, where an Israeli military unit was stationed after evacuating a group of yeshiva students who study at the site.

Skirmishes were also reported near Rachel’s Tomb, outside Bethlehem, and in Ramallah, where Palestinian police reportedly used clubs to disperse hundreds of protesters surging toward an Israeli army roadblock.

Palestinians bearing anti-Israel banners took part Sunday in the funeral procession of Abdullah Khalil Salah, a 21-year-old Palestinian student killed in clashes the previous day in Ramallah. The funeral took place in Salah’s hometown of Beit Sahur, which is located near Har Homa.

The IDF was investigating the cause of his death. Palestinians charged that he had been killed by live ammunition; Israeli officials said the soldiers were using rubber bullets.

Foreign Minister David Levy’s office said Sunday that the European Union’s Middle East peace envoy, Miguel Angel Moratinos, had delivered a message to him from Arafat in which the Palestinian leader pledged to do his best to curb violence.

It was unclear whether an order from Arafat had resulted in Palestinian police efforts to control Sunday’s demonstrations in the self-rule areas.

The Israeli demands for Arafat to crack down on terror came after a suicide bomber detonated an explosion March 21 at a cafe in central Tel Aviv, killing three Israelis and wounding 47 others.

On Saturday, the Palestinian Authority rejected the Israeli demands.

Arafat spokesman Nabil Abu Irdeineh said Israel must implement its commitments in the peace accords and return to the negotiations without any preconditions.

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