BY PAT SMITH
The Israeli government retreated May 22 and suspended its plan to usurp more than 130 acres of Palestinian-owned land in Jerusalem. Marwan Kanafani, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority, said the administration hoped Tel Aviv's about-face represented "an ultimate retreat [from] the whole policy of land confiscation," not simply a domestic political maneuver.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's government was facing mounting criticism internationally and a no-confidence vote in Parliament that threatened to bring down his government.
Officials throughout the Middle East and Europe had condemned the proposed land seizures. Many Israelis interviewed by the media also expressed their disapproval of the proposed government action.
Washington stood alone May 17, as it killed a United Nations Security Council resolution asking Tel Aviv "to rescind the expropriation [of land] and to refrain from such action in the future." The mild decree would have laid no sanctions or other punishment against Israel if the government went through with its plan to take land in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Beit Safara or Beit Hanina.
Representatives of the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria welcomed the reversal and called off a May 27 summit in Rabat, Morocco, to discuss their response to the Israeli government's planned confiscation and Washington's UN veto.
Although Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasir Arafat had said the confiscations would not interfere with talks with the Israeli government, others in the PLO leadership warned Tel Aviv that the land issue could spark a new uprising among Palestinians. "There is a serious and continuing attempt to swallow Jerusalem land piece by piece," said Nabil Shaath, a PLO negotiator. "And this threatens the whole peace process."
Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres met with Arafat May 22 in Gaza to try to smooth over the situation. In a gesture aimed at keeping the talks going, Peres agreed to increase the number of Palestinian laborers allowed to work inside Israel by several thousand to 35,000. He also pledged that Palestinians in the West Bank may assume authority over electricity, energy, and a few other areas before the July 1 deadline agreed to in the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian accords. Implementing the next stage in the accords, including Israeli withdrawal from more West Bank towns, is already a year behind schedule.
Some 400 Palestinians rallied in east Jerusalem May 19 to demand an end to land seizures. In a leaflet distributed May 21 in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, rank-and- file activists from Fatah, the dominant group in the PLO, called on the organization to suspend talks until the Israeli government canceled the land seizures.
U.S. veto condemned
Officials in Europe and the Middle East berated Washington for vetoing the Security Council resolution. Legislators in Jordan proposed suspending that country's treaty with Tel Aviv. "It is inappropriate that a veto be used against a resolution which aimed to defend the peace process," Egypt's foreign minister Amr Moussa said. "True, the Israeli position is backed by America, but it is rejected by Arabs, and it is with the Arabs that the peace process is being conducted."
"We are furious with both the Israelis and the Americans," a European Union official said after the UN vote.
The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem condemned the latest confiscations. The group said that since Tel Aviv took control of Jerusalem in the 1967 war the Israeli government seized one-third of the 17,500 acres that used to be under the Jordanian government's control. Not one of the more than 38,000 housing units Tel Aviv constructed there went to Palestinian families.
"We inherited this land - it's important to us," said Mohammed Jadallah, a Palestinian physician whose two acres of land were scheduled to be seized by the Israeli government. "Unfortunately, this is the last area that we have as a family because of other confiscations over the last 25 years." The Israeli government has refused to grant Jadallah construction permits. Tel Aviv said it planned to build a police headquarters and housing, including 440 apartments for Palestinians, on the land. "Instead of giving us houses the way they want it," Jadallah said, "why don't they let us build houses our way?"
The Israeli government told property owners they would be able to appeal the expropriations or apply for compensation. However, the government never made a serious compensation offer. It was also clear that Palestinians would continue to reject payments that amount to legitimizing Tel Aviv's "right" to their land.
Status of Jerusalem
The latest land-seizure announcement propelled the question of the future of Jerusalem to center stage. Faisal Husseini of the PLO called for immediate talks with Tel Aviv on the status of Jerusalem May 18.
"The battle for Jerusalem has begun," Israel's housing minister said.
Rightists like Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert backed the confiscation plan. "This is a Jewish city. I think that having more Arabs is calling for trouble. I have to show who is the balabusta," he said, using the Yiddish word for master of the house. He condemned the government's suspension of the seizures saying, "This is a government of surrenderers, a government lacking self-respect and principles, a bunch of cowards."
Washington's rejection of the Security Council resolution came only a few weeks after it won indefinite extension of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty despite strong opposition from the Egyptian and other Arab governments, who sought to force Israel to sign the agreement. After the U.S. veto at the United Nations, Cairo's foreign minister warned, "If things go on like this, there will be a nuclear race in the region."
He said there can never be peace in the region while
Israel possesses nuclear weapons. "In the past we have
wasted numerous opportunities to build up a power that can
stand up to the Israeli nuclear armaments program. We cannot
afford to do this any longer."
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