YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Israelis, Palestinians Restart Talks as Arabs Hold Strike

Mideast: Little is accomplished at 45-minute meeting, but another session is set for next week.


JERUSALEM — Senior Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators met Thursday for the first time in months, just hours after thousands of Palestinians answered the call from their leader, Yasser Arafat, for a general strike to protest Israeli policies.

Israel said the brief, unscheduled session between top negotiators for the sides--former Israeli army Chief of Staff Dan Shomron and Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat--was not prompted by the half-day strike or Arafat's angry accusations the day before that Israel was dragging its feet in the peace process.

The 45-minute gathering in a Jerusalem hotel room offered more form than substance, officials said, as leaders of the negotiating teams simply met and arranged for future talks. But with tensions between Israel and the Palestinians at their highest point in months, even this incremental step was greeted with relief.

"Just that this meeting took place is good," said Khalil Shikaki, director of an independent Palestinian research center in the West Bank. "We need to see progress in many areas, including on the peace process."

Erekat, the minister for local government in Arafat's Cabinet, said Palestinians had sought a meeting for more than a week but did not receive notice until Wednesday night that it would occur.

"I think we need much less words and a lot more deeds," he said in a news conference with Shomron. "Palestinians and Israelis want to be reassured about the status of peace, by both sides being committed to the reciprocal implementations of the agreements that are signed."

Shomron described the talks as "good" and said a full committee of negotiators will meet next week.

But the volatility of the situation was underlined again Thursday with reports that an Israeli soldier was killed and another injured in a guerrilla attack in southern Lebanon, just over the border. Reuters news service said the pro-Iranian Hezbollah group claimed responsibility.

Earlier, Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip kept shops and businesses shuttered throughout the morning, heeding Arafat's call for a protest of the Israeli government's decisions to demolish several Arab-owned buildings inside Jerusalem and expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

"The strike was symbolic, intended to sound the alarm that there is something seriously wrong and that the Palestinians are quite disturbed and angry," said Hanan Mikhail-Ashrawi, minister of higher education in Arafat's Cabinet.

In a move likely to raise tensions still more, Israel on Thursday announced plans to build more homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. A government spokesman declined to specify how many homes would be built, but media reports put the number at between 2,000 and 3,000.

Arafat's strike call, the first in more than two years, came in a Wednesday speech in which he castigated the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for having "declared war" on Palestinians.

Arafat also urged Muslims to converge on Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem for Friday prayers, despite a six-month closure that keeps most Palestinians from entering Israel. Many are expected to demonstrate or pray at Israeli checkpoints today if denied entry.

"This is a way of demonstrating to the world that Israel will not allow Palestinians to come to Jerusalem," said Hatem Abdel Kader, a Palestinian legislator who represents an East Jerusalem constituency.

Israeli police were reported to be on high alert for the demonstrations.

Los Angeles Times Articles