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Israeli-Palestinian tensions rise in wake of land dealer murders

JERUSALEM, June 2 (JTA) — Israeli officials are accusing the Palestinian Authority of direct responsibility for the murders of Arab land dealers. The accusations, accompanied by sharp denials from the Palestinian leadership, have increased tensions between the two sides, whose relations have been badly frayed by a more than two-month suspension of negotiations. “We must act with determination against these murders, which involve the Palestinian security arms,” Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai told reporters Monday at the Knesset. “At the same time, we must continue to pursue peace and dialogue with the Palestinians, and raise this issue with them.” Mordechai held consultations Monday on the murders with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The discussions about how Israel should respond to the murders of Arabs suspected of selling land to Jews came after the slain body of an Arab land dealer was found Saturday 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. 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. Israeli police said Tawfik Tawari, the head of Palestinian intelligence, was suspected of involvement in the murders. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported Monday that the Palestinian Authority had ordered the murders of 16 Arab land dealers who sold or allegedly planned to sell land to Jews. Israeli police had a list of the names and had alerted a number of the land dealers, Ha’aretz said. The three land dealers killed in recent weeks were among those on the list. An Israeli security official was quoted as saying that some of those on the list had hired bodyguards. The Palestinian Authority broadcast a statement on Voice of Palestine Radio that while selling land to Jews was a crime punishable by death, it would only be implemented after legal proceedings. The statement said no trials were held preceding the three murders, which it said proved that the self-rule government was not involved. 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 it would soon issue a statement on the killings. Meanwhile, a governmental committee on Jerusalem discussed the murders Monday and decided to allocate a budget to beef up the police presence in eastern Jerusalem by 400 officers. Israeli officials are giving Arab land dealers flares and stun grenades to protect themselves, Israel Television reported. “We are stepping up protection for them,” Netanyahu said. “No protection is hermetic, but we are making every effort.” Netanyahu praised the work of the police, who apprehended six Palestinians earlier this week during an attempted abduction of another land dealer, Assad Rajibi. Acting on intelligence information, officers had gone to Rajibi’s home near the Shuafat refugee camp near Jerusalem and spotted two cars speeding toward the West Bank town of Ramallah. After a chase, police arrested the six abductors and freed Rajibi. The abductors were armed, and four of them had documents linking them to the two previous murders of land dealers. Rajibi told a news conference Monday that there had been a misunderstanding, and that he had been going to Ramallah of his own free will. In a related development, Israel’s Interior Ministry has requested a police investigation of Arab media reports that the Palestinian Authority views all Arabs working for the ministry as collaborators. Interior Minister Eli Suissa said Monday that police reinforcements would be stationed around the ministry branch in eastern Jerusalem after the office’s Arab workers had stayed away because of reported threats from the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu has raised the issue of the murders with the United States and Egypt, Israel Radio reported. 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 talks he held in Cairo over the weekend were not encouraging, and that the gaps between the Israeli and Palestinian sides were still wide.