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Arafat protests new settlement

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- A fight between Palestinian villagers and Jewish settlers over a rocky West Bank hilltop grew into a full-blown crisis yesterday between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat demanded that work be halted immediately on the disputed land, which lies on the outskirts of El Khader village, south of Bethlehem. Mr. Arafat's call was echoed by left-wing members of Israel's coalition government.

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Mr. Arafat appealed to Western governments to intervene, sending a letter to consulates accusing Israel of violating the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

In a statement he issued condemning the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Mr. Arafat warned that "such a policy will only widen the gap between both peoples."

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"It will not serve the peace process, but deals it a severe blow, putting it in real danger," he said.

He called an emergency session of his government last night in )) Gaza to discuss the issue.

On Tuesday, soldiers dragged and pushed some 200 Palestinian demonstrators from the hilltop, after settlers uprooted olive tree saplings the villagers had planted to protest the project. Saeb Erakat, minister of municipalities in the Palestinian Authority, was kicked and punched by soldiers during the clash.

Bulldozers continued to clear the site yesterday under the guard of dozens of Israeli soldiers. Villagers watched the work from a distance, chanting nationalist songs and waving the Palestinian flag.

As night fell, hundreds of villagers built campfires and pitched tents, planning to sleep on the site.

"The Israeli government is digging the foundation for a new settlement and at the same time digging a grave for the whole peace process," said Palestinian Minister of Information Yasser Abd Rabbo, who visited the site yesterday.

In the Knesset, Israel's parliament, members of the left-of-center Meretz party urged Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to immediately halt construction. Environment Minister Yossi Sarid and Minister of Culture Shulamit Aloni said the planned settlement posed a threat to the peace process.

But Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud opposition bloc, blasted the government for even considering a halt to construction.

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Mr. Rabin has already asked the attorney general to review the legal status of the property, where the settlement of Efrat wants to built a 500-home neighborhood. The attorney general is to report back to the Cabinet on Monday, said Oded Ben Ami, Mr. Rabin's spokesman.

Mr. Ben Ami said construction will continue at the site until then.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres telephoned Mr. Arafat yesterday in an effort to defuse the crisis, a government spokesman said.


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