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Israel Authorizes Jewish Settlers To Keep Foothold in East Jerusalem

By Rebecca Trounson
Los Angeles Times
JERUSALEM

Deepening a crisis with the Palestinians while averting another within the government, Israel on Thursday reached an agreement with Jewish settlers that allows them to maintain a foothold in an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat immediately rejected the deal, calling it a trick aimed at deceiving the Palestinians. Israeli security officials said they were preparing for the possibility of violent Palestinian reaction after Muslim prayers at midday Friday.

The agreement allows 10 Jewish seminary students to take the place of the 11-member settler group that moved into two buildings in the Ras al Amud neighborhood Sunday night. The young men will remain on the properties around the clock to protect them from vandals, Israeli officials said.

"The families might have caused an irritation in the very delicate fabric of the relationships in this city at a very sensitive time," explained David Bar-Illan, a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu '76. "The government has decided that the presence of guards protecting the place cannot be considered an irritant."

Arafat told reporters in Gaza, "It's a trick, not more than that."

Arafat adviser Ahmed Tibi elaborated, "The situation is worse than before, because now there's a written agreement and a legitimization of the Jewish settlement" in Ras al Amud.

In a statement issued near midnight, the Palestinian Cabinet also denounced the compromise, calling it a "critical violation" of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords. The statement called on Palestinian residents of Jerusalem to "resist" the settlers until all leave Ras al Amud.

The agreement was reached after marathon negotiations between Netanyahu's government and Irving Moskowitz, an American entrepreneur who bought the two buildings in Ras al Amud and then funded the families' move into the homes. The move was an embarrassment for Netanyahu on the heels of a visit here by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who had urged him to refrain from unilateral actions that might harm the peace process with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu quickly denounced the settlers' action and hinted that he might invoke national security concerns to evict them. But on Thursday, the prime minister endorsed the compromise.

In Washington, a spokesman for Albright said she welcomed the agreement. "The secretary regards it as good news that the families are moving out," said spokesman James P. Rubin. The families departed within hours after the deal was reached, leaving behind the seminary students, according to Yossi Kaufman, a spokesman for the group.

Israeli officials said no promises were made to Moskowitz on his plans to build a new Jewish housing complex on an adjacent piece of property in Ras al Amud. Netanyahu has vowed to block the project for the time being, citing the sensitivity of the political situation with the Palestinians.

The agreement averted a crisis between Netanyahu and right-wing members of his coalition. He avoided becoming the first Israeli prime minister to evict Jews from Jerusalem.

But Palestinians said they were hard put to see the difference between the presence in their midst of three Israeli families or of a handful of Israeli students. "It's the same thing," said Munir Bahlawan, 30, who lives near the settlement. "They are all Israelis."