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Israel Orders Building Halted on Disputed Hill

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Israel’s Cabinet ordered an immediate halt Monday to construction of a Jewish settlement on a West Bank hilltop that Palestinians say they own.

“Under no circumstances will we allow any works to continue on the Date Hill,” said Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, referring to the site near the Palestinian village of El Khader where Palestinians and settlers have been demonstrating for days. Settlers from the Jewish town of Efrat want to build 500 homes on the hilltop, which lies a mile north of the settlement.

Settlers immediately denounced the decision, as did Palestinians and Peace Now, a leftist Israeli lobbying group, both of whom said it did not go far enough.

“The Israeli government has to decide between peace and settlements,” said Sufian abu Zaida, who deals with Israeli affairs in the Palestinian Authority. “The question of El Khader is not the important one. Hundreds more El Khaders will pop up. Rabin and his government have to decide that the peace process cannot continue in this way.”

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“It is a disappointing decision which means more settlements,” said Ahmed Tibi, a special adviser to Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat on Israeli affairs.

The Cabinet also decided that no future West Bank settlement construction will begin without its approval. Officials said the move is meant to ensure political control over settlement growth. Rabin decided shortly after taking office in July, 1992, that the government would no longer fund settlement construction in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. However, he later modified that decision, funding some building along the so-called green line, the 1949 armistice line between Israel and Jordan.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is scheduled to meet today in Cairo with Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath to continue talks on redeploying Israeli troops out of West Bank towns and villages and on holding Palestinian elections in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

“We want peace and we want an agreement. We do not want a binational state,” Rabin told the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, when he responded Monday afternoon to no-confidence motions offered by rightist parties over the settlement issue.

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Settlers voiced outrage after the government announced its decision. “We have no alternative but to call on the general public to come to Efrat and start the struggle,” said Yinon Ahiman, head of Efrat’s municipal council. He accused the government of giving in to terrorism.

Settlers rejected the government’s decision that they could retain building rights on Date Hill and apply for permits to build on Olive Hill, a smaller site contiguous with Efrat.

“We’re not going to rely on verbal promises that work will continue on Olive Hill,” said Yehiel Leiter, spokesman for the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization that represents the 120,000 West Bank settlers. “We will only accept this decision if work begins on Olive Hill immediately, and I mean that the tractors on Date Hill must move to Olive Hill tonight.” Leiter said settlers may demonstrate at Date Hill today.

The Cabinet made its decision after a full day of sometimes acrimonious debate. Ministers interrupted their deliberations in the early evening to defend the government against the no-confidence motions. The motions were easily defeated, but the government was sharply attacked by its opponents.

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“Who are you afraid of? Arafat? What has happened to your Zionist values?” Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu chided Rabin during the parliamentary debate.

Most of Rabin’s political efforts Monday were devoted to trying to reach a compromise with the settlers of Efrat, a community of 6,000. With only a slim majority in Parliament, Rabin is loath to directly confront the settlers, particularly over settlement construction near Jerusalem.

Bulldozers began breaking ground on what the settlers call Date Hill several days ago. The hilltop rises above the last houses of El Khader, a village of 7,000 Palestinians just south of Bethlehem. It lies more than a mile north of the last neighborhood of Efrat, across a narrow valley farmed by El Khader villagers. Efrat settlers said that they legally purchased the land, which was declared state property more than a decade ago, and that the construction would be privately financed.

Both settlers and Palestinians are treating the rocky hilltop as a test case. Settlers have threatened to turn it into “a hill of blood” if the government halted construction for political reasons. Palestinians have said that any settlement construction on the hilltop might derail the ongoing peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and reignite the Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule in the West Bank.

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“It is a mistake for the government to at all negotiate with the settlers or to give in to their pressure,” said Tsaley Reshef, a spokesman for Peace Now. “The only way for the government to be consistent is for it to halt all settlement, be it on Date Hill or Olive Hill or anywhere else.”

After hearing an opinion from Atty. Gen. Mikhail Ben Yair that construction could legally be halted on the basis of national security concerns, a majority of the Israeli Cabinet sided with the Palestinians on Monday.

“Construction at Efrat constitutes a deviation from this government’s policy. We can’t hold sincere negotiations with the Palestinians and at the same time build settlements,” said Environment Minister Yossi Sarid, a member of Meretz, the most left-leaning coalition partner.


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