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Peace process in doubt as Palestinian unrest spreads

JERUSALEM, March 31 (JTA) — The future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process remained murky this week as Palestinian unrest erupted throughout the West Bank and as Arab states called for turning back the clock on their relations with Israel. In Cairo, Arab foreign ministers adopted a resolution 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 called 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. On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Arab foreign ministers were “ganging up on Israel” with “these absurd ideas that the boycott will be reinstated.” “Israel has known periods of Israel-bashing more than once and we’ve been able to overcome it,” he told Israel Radio. In addition, Foreign Minster David Levy criticized the Arab League resolution, telling reporters that “the peace process does not tolerate and will not tolerate an atmosphere of violence — not on the ground and not in diplomatic violence.” The United States obliquely criticized the resolution, with a State Department spokesman, John Dinger, saying that Washington believes that a “regional environment supportive of peacemaking is an essential part of promoting peace in the area.” “We hope that the Arab League recognizes that it has a responsibility to shape such an environment,” Dinger said. But at the conclusion of its two-day conference Monday, the Arab League ministers remained adamant. “Netanyahu is playing with fire, and the first person to be burnt by this will be him,” Esmat Abdel-Meguid, the secretary general of the Arab League, told a news conference. 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 Palestinians observed Land Day, when annual protests are held against Israeli expropriations of Arab land. Despite fears in the preceding days, Land Day protests in Israeli Arab towns and villages passed quietly, prompting Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani to praise Israeli Arab leaders for maintaining order. On Monday, which was relatively calm in comparison to recent days, Israeli troops firing rubber bullets wounded two Palestinians during a confrontation with hundreds of Palestinian stone-throwers in the West Bank town of Jenin. Also Monday, Israeli forces demolished the Hebron-area home of the suicide bomber who carried out the March 21 Tel Aviv attack that killed three Israelis and wounded dozens of others. Netanyahu, meanwhile, said Israel remained committed to the peace process, but that the Palestinian Authority had to prove that it would take real measures to combat violence and terrorist activities. 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 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. * Asking Israel 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, violent protests erupted earlier this week in the West Bank, and the Israel Defense Force stationed tanks and reinforcements Sunday 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 Saturday in clashes 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. 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. Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai praised the work of the Palestinian police, who he said intervened in the West Bank to prevent an escalation of the confrontations.