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Israeli Government Seeks To Stop Palestinian Strike

By Barton Gellman
The Washington Post
JERUSALEM

Israel's new Likud Party government sought to dispel a crisis atmosphere Thursday with a flurry of high-level emissaries to Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat as Palestinians shuttered shop fronts in their first general strike since the signing of the peace accord three years ago.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had frozen peace talks since taking office on June 18, gave hasty permission for Israel's chief negotiator to introduce himself this afternoon to his Palestinian counterpart. The two men, former Israeli military chief of staff Dan Shomron and Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat, spent an hour at a Jerusalem hotel and said substantive talks will commence next week.

Netanyahu also dispatched a private emissary, lawyer Yitzhak Molcho, to deliver a message to Arafat in the West Bank town of Ramallah, according to a source. The premier's senior foreign policy adviser, Dore Gold, was scheduled to meet Thursday night with Arafat's ranking deputy, Mahmoud Abbas.

But even as it opened new lines of communication, the government approved construction of another 2,000 apartments for Jewish settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, according to Israel Radio. The announcement Tuesday of similar plans for 1,800 apartments, together with the pre-dawn demolition of an unlicensed East Jerusalem community center, prompted an angry speech by Arafat in which he said Israel was "declaring a state of war against the Palestinian people."

A half-day general strike, intended as a pointed reminder of the intifada , the six-year uprising against Israeli occupation of territory captured from the Arabs, closed most Palestinian businesses Thursday but proceeded without violence or great passion. Israeli troops, who once used to force open shuttered businesses during the intifada, patrolled quietly in East Jerusalem and Hebron but made no effort to interfere.

Israeli officials continued to worry about a mass prayer rally called for Friday at Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque. That holy site on the Temple Mount, adjacent to Judaism's Western Wall, has seen serious violence in years past. Police said they were mobilizing to prevent Palestinians from crossing illegally from the West Bank, which remains under a broad Israeli closure, to pray at the mosque.

The U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, citing an increased risk of "demonstrations and disturbances" this weekend, faxed an advisory to news organizations Thursday night asking American citizens to "avoid unnecessary travel to the Old City of Jerusalem and the West Bank."

Fresh alarms in Israel's security establishment followed the reported illness Thursday evening of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the imprisoned spiritual leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas. Yassin, 61, a quadriplegic who was given a life sentence by Israel in 1989 on charges of ordering the deaths of alleged collaborators, is widely revered even by Palestinians who do not approve of Hamas. Israelis and Palestinians alike believe his death in prison could easily prompt rioting and terrorist attacks.

Yassin, whose health has been failing for months, was taken from his prison cell for unspecified tests at Assaf Harofeh Hospital. By Thursday night, authorities said his condition had improved and he had returned to the Ramle Prison's medical center.

Most shops were closed and shuttered from 8 to 12 this morning in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, prodded where necessary by strong-arm youths and members of Arafat's security forces. But plenty of merchants kept one steel panel open a crack and willingly did business out of sight if asked.

"I'm considered closed, but if one of my clients comes here I can't tell him to go home," said Ibrahim Joulani, completing the sale of a polo shirt at the Saddle, his stylish western-wear boutique on East Jerusalem's Saladin Street. "I don't agree with the strike. It destroys the Palestinian economy."