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Peace Talks Set to Resume As Jerusalem Project Stalls

With Israeli-Palestinian talks seemingly back on track, an Israeli government committee has put a hold on plans to erect Jewish housing in Jerusalem’s Ras al-Amud neighborhood. An agreement to renew joint committee discussions on establishing a safe passage route between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and on building a Gaza port was announced Monday after Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and Palestinian Authority minister Nabil Sha’ath met in Jerusalem.

A separate committee dealing with the opening of a Palestinian airport in Gaza has already resumed negotiations.

Their meeting, a follow-up to Levy’s discussions last week with Sha’ath and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, came amid reports that the United States was working on a new initiative to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Speaking to reporters afterwards, Levy said Sha’ath assured him that the Palestinians were taking all necessary measures to deal with alleged involvement of Palestinian police in terrorism.

“Steps are being taken, arrests have been made,” Levy said. “Mr. Sha’ath informed me of this, in the name of chairman Arafat.”

Earlier this month, Israeli security forces detained three Palestinian policemen from the Nablus area suspected of being on their way to carry out a terrorist attack at a nearby Jewish settlement.

Israel has alleged that senior Palestinian security officials were involved in planning the attack. At least one official was detained by the Palestinians.

Sha’ath told reporters that he reiterated to Levy the Palestinian commitments to prevent “all acts that would injure, harm or create violence against Israelis and against Palestinians.”

Israeli-Palestinian talks broke off in mid-March after Israel broke ground for a Jewish neighborhood at Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem. The Palestinians have demanded a halt to building in eastern Jerusalem as a condition for restarting the negotiations.

On Monday, an Interior Ministry committee suspended an American developer’s municipal permits to build Jewish housing in the Ras al-Amud neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem.

Building could be further delayed after archaeologists said Monday that an ancient cemetery occupies the site.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert last week authorized permits for the construction of some 70 housing units on a plot of land purchased by American philanthropist Dr. Irving Moskowitz.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged Sunday to block the start of the project, and he was quick to convey via an aide to Arafat that he did not intend to move ahead with construction.

While stressing that the government was firmly committed to building in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said at Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting that the project’s timing was inappropriate.

Two Meretz members of the Jerusalem city council appealed to the Interior Ministry to halt the project.

The suspension will remain in effect until a Jerusalem district court rules in about two weeks on the legality of the permits.

Members of the Knesset interior committee visited the planned construction site, on a sloping hill beneath the Mount of Olives and overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City, and were split over the project.

Committee chairman Salah Tarif of the Labor Party said he opposed the project because of its potential for conflict.

“This is the center of a concentrated Palestinian Arab area,” he told Israel Radio. “Why bring some 100 Jews” into the center of an Arab population of more than 11,000, he said.

Knesset member Binyamin Alon of the nationalist Moledet Party rejected arguments that the projected building would be in the heart of an Arab area.

“This is the most traditional [Jewish] burial site, the Mount of Olives,” he said. “The property we are standing on was under Jewish hands for more than 100 years.”

The Israel Antiquities Authority said archaeologists would have to determine whether there are ancient Jewish graves on the site, a procedure that would further delay construction if the court upholds the building permits.

Uri Ben Asher, the city engineer, told the Knesset members that the municipal building permits were legal — and only a few technical matters would have to be worked out for construction to start if the court rejects the appeal.

Attorney Yehiel Gutman, who represents Moskowitz in Israel, said there were no legal problems with the plan.

“There are many other questions,” he told Israel Radio, “but not a question of legality.”

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