WASHINGTON -- Palestinians put their participation in the Middle East peace process in doubt yesterday to protest Israel's planned deportation of 12 Arabs from the occupied territories.
As Palestinian negotiators delayed their departure for Washington, the United States issued an unusually tough condemnation of the Israeli deportations.
Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, accusing Israel of trying to sabotage the peace process, said negotiators were waiting for the Palestine Liberation Organization in Tunis, Tunisia, to decide on further participation. She demanded strong U.S. action to press Israel to rescind the deportations.
In Tunis, meanwhile, spokesman Ahmed Abderrahman said the PLO had not ruled out a boycott of the talks and was seeking a U.N. Security Council session on the deportations to protest the expulsions.
The delay threatened to disrupt next week's resumption of talks in Washington between Israel and Palestinians and between Israel and Arab states. It came amid strong pressure on Palestinian moderates from elements in the territories opposed to the peace process.
Israel announced the expulsions Thursday, a day after a Jewish settler was shot to death in the Gaza Strip, the latest of four fatal attacks in the last few months. Those to be deported were identified as members of PLO factions or Hamas, a radical Islamic fundamentalist group.
"The United States strongly condemns the Israeli government's decision to deport the Palestinians," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "We have urged Israel at the highest levels to reconsider and to rescind its decision."
The United States opposes deportations as a violation of the rights of inhabitants of occupied territories under the Fourth Geneva Convention and says that those charged with wrongdoing should be brought to trial.
Mr. Boucher said, "We also condemn and are saddened by the recent murder of an Israeli citizen in the Gaza Strip and all other acts of violence in the occupied territories."
An Israeli Embassy spokeswoman, Ruth Yaron, defended expulsion as a measure used in "extreme cases" and said Israel considered it a deterrent. She said that Palestinians and Arab states should act themselves to curb terrorism and that Arabs who attack Israelis should not be granted immunity just because of the peace process.
The last round of peace talks ended in December with Palestinians expressing bitter frustration over their failure to move beyond corridor conversations in negotiations with Israel, which refuses to recognize a Palestinian delegation separate from Jordan's.
Although Palestinians were undecided yesterday about coming, Jordan announced that its negotiators would be here, and there was no indication from either Syria or Lebanon that it would not attend.
The State Department also criticized Israel's decision to budget money for roads, services and about 5,000 housing units in the occupiedterritories, a move that appeared to put the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir on a collision course with the White House.
Mr. Boucher said that "in light of the enormous challenge that Israel is facing in absorbing Soviet Jews under stringent budgetary conditions, it is hard to understand . . . how an estimated quarter of the government housing budget will go to increased units in the occupied territories."
The budget firmly puts Mr. Shamir's stamp on the policy of settlement building and makes it hard for him to back away without causing his government to collapse, said Marvin Feuerwerger of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Israel, which has pledged not to direct emigres from the former Soviet republics into the territories, is expected to renew its request later this month for $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees for absorption.
A senior U.S. official said yesterday that no decision had been made on how the administration will respond to the Israeli request and that none would be for a while. Officials have said, though, that the administration would attach conditions aimed at curbing settlement activity.
Two pro-Israel senators, Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Bob Kasten, R-Wis., reportedly have lined up 70 co-sponsors to grant the guarantees without significant conditions.