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Israeli-Palestinian tensions rise in wake of land dealer murders

JERUSALEM, June 1 (JTA) — Israeli police have arrested six Palestinians, four of them self-rule security officials, during the attempted kidnapping of two Arab land dealers from a village near Jerusalem. Jerusalem police chief Yair Yitzhaki announced the arrests Sunday, a day after the slain body of an Arab land dealer was found near the West Bank town of Ramallah. Ali Mohammad Jumhour was the third Arab land broker to be killed since Palestinian Justice Minister Freih Abu Medein announced last month that Arabs selling land to Jews were committing a crime punishable by death. Medein said his directive was based on an old Jordanian military law. The law was canceled by Jordan after it signed a 1994 peace treaty with Israel. Jumhour, who had an Israeli identity card, was killed in the same fashion as the two previous victims, by shots to the head at close range. Yitzhaki said Palestinian officials — including a security chief for the self-rule government — were involved in the killings, as well as in the attempted kidnapping of a land dealer who was known to have worked with Jumhour. “We have first-hand evidence of the involvement of a head of security in the Palestinian Authority,” said Yitzhaki, who refused to give the official’s name. But Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani later denied that the official was Jibril Rajoub, who is in charge of all Palestinian security forces in the West Bank. Medein flatly denied Yitzhaki’s charges. “This is nonsense, the [Palestinian] Authority is not involved in the killings of those dealers, brokers, traitors,” Medein told reporters Sunday, adding that he believed Israel was behind the killings. Israel Radio reported that a group calling itself the “Guardians of the Holy Lands” had claimed responsibility for the murders. In an anonymous phone call to an Arabic-language newspaper, a member of the group said that it would soon issue a statement on the killings. Israeli officials have held the Palestinian Authority responsible for the murders and have demanded an end to the policy. Yitzhaki said the matter should be taken up by the Israeli government because of evidence found linking Palestinian security officials with the murders. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised the matter in contacts with the United States and Egypt, Israel Radio reported. The issue has increased tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, whose relations were already shaky after a more than two-month impasse in peace negotiations. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s top political aide, Osama Al-Baz, resumed consultations with the two sides on Sunday in an effort to find a formula to renew Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which have been frozen since mid-March. Baz’s shuttle effort comes in the wake of last week’s summit between Netanyahu and Mubarak. After Netanyahu met Sunday with Baz, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement that some progress had been made toward resolving the problems between the sides. But Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, who was scheduled to meet this week with Baz, was less optimistic. Erekat said that talks he held in Cairo over the weekend were not encouraging, and that the gaps between the Israeli and Palestinian sides were still wide. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and security cooperation were suspended after Israel began constructing Jewish housing at Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem, and after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed three Israelis at a Tel Aviv cafe. The Palestinians have demanded a halt to settlement activity as a condition for renewing talks. Israel has demanded the resumption of intelligence sharing as a precondition. Israel has welcomed the mediation effort from Egypt, whose relations with Israel have sometimes become frayed during the past year over repeated delays in the Israeli-Palestinian peace track. In a related development, the Israel Defense Force intelligence chief this week denied a newspaper report that quoted him as saying that Egyptian leaders were in need of a psychiatrist. The Israeli daily Yediot Achronot said that in a closed discussion with senior officials, Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon said that Egypt could not decide whether to take a conciliatory or hostile approach toward Israel. Ya’alon categorically denied the report, saying the newspaper had inaccurately reported his remarks.