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Jewish families leave house in eastern Jerusalem neighborhood

JERUSALEM, Sept. 18 (JTA) – The United States is applauding a compromise that Israel reached with three Jewish families living in Ras al-Amud. But Palestinian officials were far from pleased. The families left voluntarily, but 10 yeshiva students stayed to maintain a Jewish presence there, according to a news report. The government minister appointed to handle the matter, Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani, voiced satisfaction after reaching the agreement with Dr. Irving Moskowitz, the U.S. developer who leased the structure to the families. “What is most important is that we reached an agreement and don’t have to remove the (families) by force,” Kahalani told Israel Radio. “We defused the tensions in the area. I don’t know that it was a victory for any side. What is important is that we did not hurt people, and we did not let people get hurt.” The compromise saved Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the politically volatile step of having to forcibly remove the families. Right-wing members of Netanyahu’s coalition were already warning that such an action would bring down the government. The compromise was announced as the High Court of Justice was hearing a petition filed by Moskowitz to bar the government from evicting the families by force. During a court recess, representatives from the two sides informed the presiding justice, Theodor Orr, that a behind-the-scenes agreement had been reached, and the hearing was suspended. U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin described the compromise as “good news,” but expressed the hope that the status quo in Jerusalem would not change. Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat told reporters in the Gaza Strip that the deal was a “trick, not more than that.” Other Palestinian officials warned of new violence. Indeed, Palestinian rioters Thursday threw rocks and gasoline bombs in the neighborhood. On Sunday, the families moved into a two-story structure in the Arab neighborhood, which is adjacent to the Mount of Olives, hours after a district planning board upheld a July decision by the Jerusalem municipality to grant Moskowitz permits to build 70 housing units for Jews. The action took place only days after U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, on her first visit to the region since assuming the post, called on Israel to take a “timeout” from taking “provocative” steps, particularly Israeli construction plans on disputed land. In contrast to his reaction to the March construction in the Har Homa neighborhood, Netanyahu came out strongly against the action in Ras al-Amud, saying that any decisions regarding building in Jerusalem should be coordinated by the government, not individuals. Netanyahu recognized the fact that the property had been legally purchased by Moskowitz, but added that the presence of the Jewish families in the predominantly Arab neighborhood was a serious threat to public order. Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Netanyahu said that “the law is clear cut about property rights, but it is not clear-cut about what represents a clear and present danger to security.” Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein said this week that the families could have been evicted on grounds of security. Israeli Police Commissioner Assaf Hefetz warned this week that the Jewish presence in the neighborhood of 11,000 Arabs could “trigger riots and a renewal of the Palestinian intifada.”