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Thousands Rally Against Dividing Jerusalem

TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than 200,000 Israelis and Jews from around the world rallied outside the stone walls of the Old City on Monday, saying Jerusalem must not be divided. Meanwhile, Palestinian negotiators rejected President Clinton’s peace proposals, insisting that they will not be pressured into signing an agreement.

The demonstrators--many of them bused from towns across Israel and settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip--thronged the streets outside Jaffa Gate. The crowd waved Israeli flags, listened to patriotic music and heard declarations that Jerusalem will remain solely under Israeli control. For hours before the rally got underway, the city was nearly impassable, with police deploying thousands of officers and closing many roads.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert told the crowd that it was a pity that Clinton, whom he described as “a great friend for Israel for the past eight years,” will be remembered as “the first president in the history of the United States to propose dividing Jerusalem.”

Organizers billed the demonstration as apolitical, but many of those who turned out said they had come to protest caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s willingness to divide sovereignty over Jerusalem with the Palestinians.

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“I came to say that no one, no one in the world--not even Mr. Barak--will give this to someone else,” said Yossi Avissar, 60, who added that his family has lived in Jerusalem for seven generations. “We want to tell him no, we want to tell him that these walls belong to all the Jews of the world.”

Avissar said the West Jerusalem house where he lives still bears the pockmarks of bullets fired by Jordanian soldiers before Israel captured the Old City and East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War.

“When I was young, I used to write poems about the border, about how I wanted to cross it,” Avissar said. “This is a part of Israel. It is not about politics. It is a part of us.”

Clinton’s plan calls for Israel to cede most of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians, and to divide sovereignty in Jerusalem. In return, the Palestinians are asked to give up the notion that the refugees who lost their homes when Israel was created in 1948 and their descendants--who are thought to number about 4 million people--can return to their property. The president’s proposals also call for an international force to be deployed to protect Israel’s borders.

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Before Monday’s rally began, scuffles broke out between Arabs and Jews inside the Old City, and police reported that Palestinians threw stones at officers near Damascus Gate, also in the walls of the Old City. For the first time in weeks, a short burst of gunfire targeted the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo from the West Bank city of Bethlehem. But the demonstration itself passed largely without incident.

There were scattered incidents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Monday, a day after Israeli and Palestinian officials met with CIA Director George J. Tenet in Cairo to discuss restoring the security cooperation that collapsed after violence erupted between Israelis and Palestinians in late September. Palestinians said the talks made no progress, but the sides agreed to meet again today in Cairo. Barak has said there must be a significant reduction in violence for real peace talks to resume.

Palestinians reported that a 34-year-old man was killed by Israeli soldiers near Netzarim junction in the Gaza Strip. The army said the man was shot because he came too close to soldiers and was carrying a “suspicious” bag. The army reported that an Israeli boy was injured Monday night in a drive-by shooting north of Jerusalem in the West Bank.

U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis B. Ross is due back in the region Wednesday, on what may be his last mission before Clinton leaves office Jan. 20.

In a speech Sunday to the Israel Policy Forum, Clinton said Ross would work to narrow remaining differences between Israelis and Palestinians over the president’s peace proposals.

But neither side holds out much hope that negotiations can be concluded--or even substantially advanced--through the good offices of a lame-duck U.S. president working with a caretaker prime minister in Israel who is battling for his political survival. Polls indicate that Barak is badly trailing the hawkish Ariel Sharon, leader of the right-wing Likud Party, with less than a month to go before Feb. 6 elections.

Palestinian negotiators talked tough, even though the White House had said Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat accepted Clinton’s proposals with reservations last week.

“We can’t accept Clinton’s ideas as a basis for future negotiations or a future settlement,” said Ahmed Korei, a senior Palestinian negotiator. “Clinton didn’t take Arafat’s reservations into account, and these ideas don’t offer our people their legitimate rights,” Korei told the Reuters news agency.

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Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians would not sign a declaration of principles based on Clinton’s proposals that would serve as a framework for future talks.

“We will not accept any kind of pressure,” Erekat said.

The notion of dividing sovereignty in Jerusalem has become an explosive issue in the Israeli election campaign, touching a chord with Israelis across the political spectrum and with Jews in the diaspora.

Ronald Lauder, head of the U.S.-based Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, was the only speaker other than Olmert to address Monday night’s rally. Lauder’s appearance at the rally was criticized by some Israeli officials, who said the decision of whether to divide Jerusalem is Israel’s to make.

Others, such as Israeli parliament speaker Avraham Burg, a left-leaning member of Barak’s Labor Party, have said that world Jewry must be involved in any decision to relinquish control over Jewish holy sites.

“I’m here tonight because I’m against the division of Jerusalem, and particularly of the Temple Mount,” said one of the demonstrators, Stuie Karp, a 19-year-old yeshiva student from New York.

The Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, is where the two Jewish temples of antiquity stood. The raised compound now houses the Al Aqsa mosque and is the third-holiest site in Islam.

Karp said he can understand Israelis who feel that decisions on Jerusalem are theirs to make “because they serve in their army, we don’t.” But, he said, “we’re still Jews, and we have to have a say in it.”

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