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Israeli Plan for Withdrawal Causing Crisis, Arafat Says

By Marjorie Miller
Los Angeles Times

Israel's plan for a limited West Bank troop withdrawal has provoked "a real crisis" in the peace process, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat charged Monday, as the Israeli government threatened to put the redeployment on hold and its soldiers clashed with Palestinian demonstrators near Hebron.

Israeli officials said the pullback could not take place while the Palestinians rejected the government's proposed military withdrawal from 9 percent of the West Bank and refused to take charge of the territory.

"We have to have an orderly transfer of power," said Israeli foreign policy adviser Dore Gold. "If we give back 9 percent, there has to be someone to receive it."

Arafat spokesman Nabil abu Rudaineh countered that the Palestinians "are not refusing to take back land. We are refusing to have Israel dictate to us."

Tensions between Israel and the Palestinians have been mounting since Israel two weeks ago announced plans to build a new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem and subsequently ordered the closure of four Palestinian offices in the city. Israel captured the eastern half of Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast War, and the Palestinians hope to establish a capital there one day.

On Thursday, a divided Israeli Cabinet voted to pull back troops from 9 percent of the West Bank: 7 percent would be transferred from joint Israeli-Palestinian control to full Palestinian control, while only 2 percent would switch from Israeli occupation to partial or full Palestinian control.

The Palestinians had expected a 30 percent withdrawal and angrily rejected the first of three redeployments that are to take place by the end of next year under the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords.

"There is a real crisis because there is a clear breaching of what had been agreed upon," Arafat told reporters in the Gaza Strip. He called the Israeli move "a trick and a conspiracy against the peace process."

Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordecai and Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed-Rabbo met in Tel Aviv late Monday to try to diffuse the situation. But their meeting ended without a resolution.

"The crisis is worsening from moment to moment," Abed-Rabbo said afterward as Mordecai called on Arafat to prevent a violent reaction among Palestinians.

Clashes did break out briefly near the West Bank city of Hebron earlier in the evening after dozens of Palestinians tried to stop bulldozers from clearing a new road from the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba to Hebron.

When Israeli police and soldiers reportedly began beating protesters, several hundred Palestinians joined the fray and stoned Israeli troops until Palestinian police intervened.

Seven Palestinians were hospitalized and five were arrested.

Palestinian leaders have been warning that Israel's policies could lead to an outbreak of violence such as the armed combat in September that left at least 75 dead and 1,000 wounded.

"Arafat realizes violence would hurt him a lot, but he is worried that it could break out whether he wants it to or not," said a U.S. official who follows the peace negotiations.

Several Palestinian leaders and political observers said Arafat had been embarrassed by the recent events and appeared backed into a corner. They said he went to the United States last week seeking help from the Clinton administration but instead got a U.S. veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel's proposed construction in East Jerusalem.

Palestinian peace negotiators, led by the moderate Mahmoud Abbas, tendered their resignations to Arafat on Thursday in protest of Israel's policies and the course of the peace process. Arafat did not immediately accept the resignations.

Israeli officials accused the Palestinians of brinkmanship. They said Arafat was seeking a controlled crisis to bring international pressure to bear on Israel.

In addition, they criticized Arafat for releasing a top leader of the military wing of Hamas. The released prisoner, Ibrahim Makadna, reportedly led a secret network within Hamas suspected of launching a series of suicide bombings that left more than 60 dead in Israel last year.

Hamas leaders said the release was an apparent goodwill gesture toward the militant Islamic group. But the Israeli government said the release meant Arafat wants to "keep open the option" of terrorism.