Arafat strikes back at Israeli bulldozing

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The Independent Online
In his most vituperative attack since he returned from exile two years ago, Yasser Arafat yesterday accused Israel's right-wing government of "declaring war" on the Palestinians by expanding Jewish settlements and stalling the peace process.

The Palestinian leader called a four-hour protest strike this morning in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. "Strike, strike everywhere," he ordered the Palestinian legislative council, meeting in the West Bank town of Ramallah. "We cannot keep silent. We cannot tolerate this hellish plan that they are carrying out with toughness and stubbornness."

A furious Mr Arafat said the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, wanted to humiliate the Palestinians. "We will not let anyone humiliate us," he said. An Israeli spokesman reacted by warning Mr Arafat that Israel "will respond sharply to any attempt to worsen the situation, or to any violence which could endanger the peace process". It urged him to refrain from "declarations and extreme actions, which do not contribute to advancing the peace process".

Mr Arafat was speaking a day after the government authorised 900 extra homes in Kiryat Sefer, a new town for ultra-Orthodox Jews being developed across the old "green line" border.

On Tuesday Israeli bulldozers demolished a Palestinian community centre in the Old City of Jerusalem, which spokesmen claimed had been built without a licence. The funding was said to have come from the Palestinian Authority, which Israel is determined to keep out of the disputed city.

Kiryat Sefer is the first large-scale project on the West Bank since Mr Netanyahu rescinded the settlement freeze imposed by the previous Labour Government. The land had already been acquired for the town, which is remote from Arab population centres, but Palestinians fear it will begin another settlement boom.

Mr Arafat was taking an aggressive stance in advance of a meeting he was expected to hold soon with Mr Netanyahu. The prime minister, who has refused to embrace the man he considers an unrepentant terrorist, was forced to think again when President Ezer Weizman invited Mr Arafat to meet him.

Mr Arafat was also seeking to show his people, dispirited by the diplomatic stalemate and their economic distress, that he will fight back if he has to. But it is the Palestinians, more than the Israelis, who will suffer from the strike. Palestinian analysts accept a return to the intifada uprising is not a credible option. Israeli troops are no longer ready targets for stones and petrol bombs in most West Bank and Gaza towns.

What does worry Israelis is that Mr Arafat might look the other way if Palestinian extremists renew suicide bombings inside Israel. Since the last wave of terrorism in March, his security services have co-operated with the Israelis to curb the bombers.

The Hebrew press reported yesterday that the Israeli army and police were on heightened alert against a rumoured offensive by Islamic Jihad, the smaller but more ruthless of the Muslim rejectionist groups.

tJerusalem - Israel Radio said gunmen fired at an Israeli bus travelling near a Jewish settlement south of the West Bank town of Bethlehem, wounding one person. Reuter reports.