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Netanyahu defends Jerusalem housing project

Arafat urges restraint as controversial work begins

March 18, 1997
Web posted at: 10:25 p.m. EST (0325 GMT)

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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- As Israel began work at the site of a planned Jewish settlement in Arab East Jerusalem on Tuesday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would not "back off" on the controversial project.

Palestinians view the project as a violation of Israel-PLO peace deals, but Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said he had called on his people to avoid violence over the issue.

Netanyahu said he did not believe any agreements had been broken and was convinced that further peace efforts with the PLO would continue.

"Anyone who expects the Jewish state to make a peace that will redivide Jerusalem is not envisioning the kind of peace that we all believe in and think we can achieve," the prime minister told reporters at a news conference in Jerusalem. icon (893K/40 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Bulldozers begin work amid military presence


Army helicopters hovered overhead as a ring of hundreds of troops blocked off the disputed construction site -- a pine-covered hill called Har Homa by Israel and known to Arabs as Jabal Abu Ghneim.

There were no immediate reports of a widespread Palestinian backlash but witnesses said at least three Israeli Arab students were hurt trying to reach a Palestinian protest camp near the hilltop site.

The witnesses said Israeli soldiers attacked the students from Jerusalem's Hebrew University with the butts of their guns.

Palestinian youths in a refugee camp outside nearby Bethlehem also burned some tires and threw stones at Israeli troops.

Bulldozers started breaking ground after being trucked to the site from a staging point about one mile (two km) away.

Surveyors also began taking measurements for the internationally condemned housing project. Israel plans to build 6,500 homes for Jews at the site.

Israel regards all of Jerusalem as its "eternal capital" and says it does not need to consult with anyone on construction in the city.

Netanyahu defends his decision

"We have a right to build in Jerusalem," Netanyahu said at a news conference held several hours after the bulldozers began carving up the hill.


"It is as unconscionable to ask us to freeze construction .... as it would be to ask the United States not to build in Washington, D.C.," he said. icon (910K/22 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Netanyahu also warned of renewed suicide attacks against Israel, charging that "the Palestinian leadership has given the green light to the worst terrorist organizations on Earth." icon (519K/24 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Dore Gold, an adviser to Netanyahu, told CNN new housing construction in Jerusalem follows the prime minister's campaign pledge to provide security for Israelis and to protect Jerusalem from being "redivided."

Peaceful protest near site

Before construction began, Israel reinforced its troops in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in anticipation of protests.

The army also declared land between the hill and the West Bank town of Bethlehem a closed military area in a bid to ensure Palestinian protesters could not reach the site.

But by Tuesday dozens of protesters including Faisal Husseini, the PLO's top official in Jerusalem, had pitched six tents on a rocky slope near the hill.

Several dozen Israeli peace activists joined the group.

The protesters said they would resist soldiers' orders to leave. One soldier kept a mounted machine gun trained on the tents.

Husseini, a member of the Palestinian Cabinet, said the protest would remain peaceful unless the Israeli army evicts them.

"We are sleeping here to defend the land. We are determined to stay here until we believe that our objectives are reached," he said prior to the arrival of the bulldozers.

Israeli soldiers and a delegation of Israeli parliament members tried in vain to persuade the Palestinians to leave.

"We are prepared for any flare-up," Israeli Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani said earlier.

Arafat calls on Palestinians to avoid violence


In preparation for a possible upsurge in anti-Israeli violence, the Palestinian Health Ministry declared a state of emergency at hospitals in self-ruled parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In Gaza, members of the Israeli peace movement, including Yuval Rabin, the son of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, met with Yasser Arafat.

When asked by journalists if he had called for restraint by his people, Arafat answered: "Yes, I have done it."

Speaking to Israeli radio after the meeting, Rabin said: "Our objective was to get a pledge that it will remain quiet and that there will be no violence".

The Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas criticized Arafat "for using only peaceful means" to protest the groundbreaking and for not cutting contact between Israel and Palestinians.

Ibrahim Ghoshe, a Hamas spokesman in Amman, Jordan, called on Palestinians "to go into continuous intifada (uprising)."

Under the 1993 PLO-Israel peace accord, the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza will be determined in "final status" talks that were supposed to have resumed on Monday and end in 1999.

The PLO wants East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, as the capital of a Palestinian state.

Jerusalem Bureau Chief Walter Rodgers, Correspondent Jerrold Kessel and Reuters contributed to this report.


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