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Riots feared over Israeli housing plan in Jerusalem


February 26, 1997
Web posted at: 11:19 a.m. EST (1619 GMT)

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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israel Wednesday approved construction of a new Jewish neighborhood in Arab East Jerusalem despite international protests and warnings of Palestinian violence.

Security was increased in Jerusalem and the West Bank ahead of the decision by a ministerial committee.

It approved a first-stage plan to build 2,600 homes for Jews at Jabal Abu Ghenaim, called Har Homa by Israel. Another 3,000 housing units would be built for Palestinians in Jerusalem.

The area -- a tree-covered hill captured from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war -- covers 459 acres (185 hectares).

Palestinians claim the eastern sector of Jerusalem as a future capital and fear Har Homa would cut off Arab sections of Jerusalem from the West Bank. Two-thirds of the land expropriated by the government for the project belonged to Jews, and one-third to Palestinians.

Syria calls it 'declaration of war'

"There is an immense housing shortage in Jerusalem," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in defense of the plan.

But in a bid to defuse Arab anger, Netanyahu spoke by telephone with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak before the meeting about the project condemned by Palestinians as a violation of peace deals with Israel.

Syria warned Israel on Wednesday that a decision to build a Jewish neighborhood in Arab East Jerusalem would be a "declaration of war" against Arabs and the Middle East peace process.

Violence already, new clashes feared

Those tensions came to the surface Tuesday when Palestinians tried to march to the building site and were turned back by police.

Later, there was a clash in the West Bank between plainclothes Israeli police and Palestinians from the village of Hizmeh.

Israeli forces shot and killed one Palestinian and wounded three others.

That led to an hour of fighting between stone-throwing Palestinians and Israeli troops.

Palestinians, Israeli leftists and, by some accounts, Israel's own intelligence services have all warned the plan could ignite Arab rage similar to September clashes after Netanyahu opened a tunnel entrance near Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu warned Palestinian President Yasser Arafat that Israel may postpone a March 7 withdrawal of troops in the West Bank if there were riots, Israel army radio reported.

In Gaza Wednesday, Arafat declined to answer reporters' questions about the housing project.

The U.N. Security Council expressed concern Tuesday over Israel's settlement policy in East Jerusalem and said it hoped "restraint and wisdom would prevail so as not to undo the peace process," council president Njuguna Mahugu of Kenya said.

But Netanyahu's chief of communications, David Bar-Illan, said: "It is a civil project which intends to alleviate the housing shortage (in Jerusalem). It is good for the Jews. It is good for the Arabs."

Reuters contributed to this report.


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