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Arafat Accuses Israel Government of 'War'

Mideast: Palestinian president calls for strike to protest Jewish settlements, lack of talks. Netanyahu aide upbraids Arab leader for his 'violent words.'


RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, visibly angry, accused the Israeli government Wednesday of having "declared war" on Palestinians through recent actions such as demolishing Arab-owned buildings in Jerusalem and expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

In a speech to the Palestinian legislature, Arafat also issued his strongest challenge to date to the new government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling on Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem to conduct a four-hour general strike today, their first such work stoppage in more than two years.

"We will not keep silent," Arafat told the Palestinian Legislative Council, meeting in this West Bank town just north of Jerusalem. "They are trying to humiliate us."

Since Netanyahu's election in May, contact between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government has been drastically diminished. The once-rapid pace of the peace process has slowed to a crawl. And in what is viewed by many Palestinians as a personal affront to Arafat, Netanyahu has refused to meet with him.

"Palestinians are fed up," said Hanan Mikhail-Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator and Arafat Cabinet minister. "We have no patience any longer with the verbal deceptions of the Israelis who are talking peace but are making moves . . . that show us very clearly that they mean something else."

The council later passed a resolution urging a halt to all contacts with the Israeli government. The resolution is binding on council members but not on Arafat or his government.

David Bar-Illan, Netanyahu's spokesman, described Arafat's angry words as an attempt to "test the government's resolve. . . . It's as if Arafat seems to realize, suddenly, that the government has changed--that we want reciprocity, we want a removal of violations [of the agreements], we want a consistent drive to peace, an unwavering fight against terrorism.

"This isn't the right time," he added, "for this kind of rhetoric. Violent words have an unfortunate tendency to deteriorate into violent deeds, and, especially with the situation being tense at this point, it's not wise to inflame the Palestinians."

Late Wednesday, Israeli television reported that Foreign Minister David Levy telephoned Arafat and urged him not to increase tensions. Levy, who is considered a moderate in the Netanyahu government and who met Arafat in July, also offered reassurances to him.

Leaders of the opposition Labor Party appealed to Arafat to not intensify ill will between Israelis and Palestinians and asked him to cancel the strike and other protests. But Yossi Beilin, a senior Labor member of the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, and an architect of the 1993 peace accords, also criticized the Netanyahu government for failing to implement the initial agreements. Since his election, for example, Netanyahu has delayed acting on Israel's existing commitment to withdraw its troops from the West Bank town of Hebron.

"If [this government] believes that it has timeout until the elections in the U.S., it ought to understand that here, in this region, if there's no progress toward a settlement, there will unfortunately be violence," Beilin warned in an interview on Israeli radio.

In his speech, Arafat called on Palestinians to participate in a series of protests in the next few days, beginning with the strike--an activity that was a frequent feature of the intifada, the 1987-93 Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. For Friday, the Muslim holy day, Arafat asked that Palestinians--and Israeli Arabs--converge on Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque for prayers. Arafat has requested that on Saturday, West Bank teachers devote the first hour of class to study about Jerusalem. And on Sunday, Christian Palestinians are urged to visit holy sites in the Old City to pray.

Arafat vented his many frustrations with Netanyahu's government, including its planned expansion of a Jewish settlement in the West Bank and its demolition this week of a Palestinian youth center in East Jerusalem.

Israeli authorities contended the center had been built without permits. In response, Palestinian officials said the Israelis routinely reject Arab requests for legal approvals.

Summer Assad of The Times' Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.

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