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Israeli, Palestinian Tensions Rising Ahead of Clinton Visit

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has blamed Palestinian officials for encouraging violent protests in the West Bank.

Netanyahu made the accusation amid a series of demonstrations that led to clashes between Israeli troops and the protesters, who are demanding the release of Palestinian activists being held in Israeli jails. Some 20 Palestinians were wounded in the weekend clashes.

The latest argument between Israel and the Palestinian Authority comes as President Clinton is slated to visit the region next week.

Netanyahu said at Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting that Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat must take clear steps to “stop the incitement and violence” in the West Bank. He added that Israel could not consider handing over additional West Bank territory to the Palestinians given the current atmosphere of violence over the prisoner releases.

Israel last month freed 250 Palestinian prisoners as part of the Wye agreement.

After releasing the prisoners, Israeli leaders said no prisoners with blood on their hands would be freed.

But Palestinian officials, noting that many of those freed were common criminals, have demanded the freedom of security prisoners — those jailed for anti-Israel activities.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Palestinian prisoners joined a hunger strike Sunday to demand their freedom.

Last week, Israel’s Inner Security Cabinet threatened to suspend any further troop withdrawal in the West Bank pending Palestinian fulfillment of a number of conditions, including a public renunciation of incitement and violence.

The Palestinian Authority rejected that stance, saying Israel cannot present new conditions for implementation of the Wye accord.

The United States also criticized the Israeli threat. But at the same time, American officials upheld Israel’s position that its recent release of Palestinian prisoners was done in accordance with the Wye agreement, which was signed in October.

Tensions between Israel and the Palestinians have been rising in the days leading up to Clinton’s arrival in the region on Saturday. The president hopes his visit to Israel and Palestinian self-rule areas will help to further the peace process by building upon the goodwill established at Wye.

During his visit, Clinton is scheduled to attend a meeting in the Gaza Strip at which the Palestine National Council and other Palestinian groups are expected to approve the revocation of those clauses in the Palestinian charter that call for the destruction of Israel.

In another dispute prior to Clinton’s arrival, Netanyahu is demanding that a formal vote on the revocation of the anti-Israel clauses be taken at that meeting. Palestinian officials counter that the action will be taken by voice acclamation.

Tensions between the two sides have been further deepened by what Palestinian officials view as Israeli violations of their peace accords.

Senior Palestinian officials met Sunday to discuss efforts by Jewish settlers to set up encampments on West Bank hilltops. The officials also criticized Israel’s construction of bypass roads within the West Bank to link settlements following the redeployments called for in the Wye accord.

The officials called for organized demonstrations, including protest tents near the sites of the encampments, and processions in areas where bypass roads are being built.

For its part, Israeli officials maintain that they have fulfilled the Wye accord to the letter, and that the bypass roads are part of security arrangements linked to the redeployments.

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