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Clinton criticizes Israel plan to raze Palestinian homes

In the West Bank, the secretary of State says Israeli demolition plans for an archaeological project in East Jerusalem would violate terms of the U.S.-backed 'road map' peace plan.

March 05, 2009|Paul Richter

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in an unusual public criticism of Israel, said Wednesday that its plan to destroy dozens of Palestinian homes in Arab East Jerusalem was "unhelpful" and contrary to Israel's obligations under a U.S.-backed peace plan.

Clinton, closing her first foray into Middle East peacemaking, said the implications of the decision to raze the homes for an archaeological project "go far beyond" the 88 homes affected by Israel's plans. She said she would raise that issue, as well as concern over the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, with Israeli officials.

Clinton's comments were delivered with some emotion during an appearance with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and came at a time when both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are scrutinizing her words to try to divine where her loyalties lie and what to expect from the Obama administration.

Meanwhile, at a Tehran conference in support of the Palestinian cause, Iran's leadership unleashed a torrent of rhetoric against Israeli and U.S. attempts to resolve the conflict.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's most powerful political and religious figure, derided the Obama administration's Middle East policies as the same as those of its predecessors, despite promises of change, and he described armed "resistance" as the only path toward a Palestinian state.

Despite the criticism of Israel, Clinton moved cautiously during a two-day visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank that marked the beginning of her effort to push for a "comprehensive" peace effort between Israel and its neighbors.

Clinton also stressed in an appearance with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Tuesday that U.S. officials understood Israel's security concerns, and she called on the militant group Hamas to halt its rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel.

Clinton said she intended to air concerns with the Israelis only in a "constructive" way.

"We are raising these issues in a way we hope is helpful," she said.

Israeli authorities have been embroiled in controversy for years over plans for an East Jerusalem archaeological site devoted to Jewish history and sites associated with the biblical King David. The homeowners in the Silwan quarter have now received eviction notices saying the buildings were built illegally and are to be torn down.

The battle is part of a larger struggle for control of Jerusalem. Israel declares the city as its capital, and Palestinians envision East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

The planned destruction of Palestinian homes was not Clinton's only criticism of Israel during the trip. She also said that she had expressed concern in "numerous settings" to Israelis about restrictions on the passage of goods into Gaza.

Clinton held meetings with top Israeli and Palestinian officials beginning Tuesday morning. Her main intent, aides said, was to listen and start building key relationships.

On Tuesday, she met with Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud party. Both vowed to cooperate closely, according to one participant, despite their apparent differences on the goal of building a state for Palestinians.

"Both sides are quite optimistic about the extent of cooperation they can reach," said Zalman Shoval, Likud's foreign affairs chief, who attended the Clinton-Netanyahu meeting.

In Tehran, Khamenei spoke strongly against U.S. and Israeli efforts.

"The deliverance of Palestine cannot be obtained through begging from the United Nations or the dominating powers, and more so from the usurper regime," he said in a speech at the conference on the Palestinian cause, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency. "The sole path of its deliverance is through resistance and fortitude."

The U.S. and Iran back opposing Palestinian factions. Washington supports Abbas' Fatah movement in the West Bank, and Tehran backs Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and refuses to recognize Israel.

Events such as Wednesday's conference take place frequently in Iran and typically are venues for heated anti-Israeli rhetoric. But Iranian leaders stopped well short of threatening Israel or calling for its military destruction.

Khamenei reiterated calls for an election that would allow all those with a stake in Israel and the Palestinian territories, including Jews and Palestinians living abroad, to vote for a government.

Abbas said the Iranian complaints further divided Palestinians and said he rejected them "utterly and completely."

Clinton said Iran's leaders were supporting terrorism, threatening other countries and seeking to spread intimidation "as far as they think their voice can reach." U.S. officials still plan an attempt to talk with Tehran.

Also Wednesday, an Israeli airstrike killed a field commander of the Islamic Jihad group in Gaza who had directed rocket attacks on Israel, officials on both sides said.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

Times staff writers Richard Boudreaux in Jerusalem and Borzou Daragahi in Vienna and special correspondents Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.

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