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Mideast: Palestinian Conference Called Amid Crisis

By Patrick Whalen

Prague, 14 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat plans to convene tomorrow a conference to address what he calls Israeli breaches of the peace accords with the Palestinians.

He invited the United States, Russia, European countries and Japan to the meeting, which is to take place in the Gaza Strip.

The conference comes amid what observers say is the most serious crisis in the Middle East in recent months.

Yesterday, a Jordanian soldier killed seven Israeli schoolgirls and wounded six others when he opened fire on a school outing in territory shared by Israel and Jordan in the Jordan Valley.

The soldier's motive was not immediately known. But both Israeli and Palestinian officials suggested the attack may have been provoked by an escalation of tension among Israel and its Arab neighbors.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has aroused Arab wrath with two recent actions.

In the first, Netanyahu decided to build thousands of new housing units for Jews in the Har Homa neighborhood of mostly Arab East Jerusalem. Israel, which considers the whole of Jerusalem to be its capital, says it has the right to build anywhere in the city. But Arafat, who wants East Jerusalem as the capital of a possible future state, says the new Israeli construction is illegal and would pre-empt upcoming final status negotiations on the city.

In the second controversial action, Israel last week decided to pull its forces out of nine percent of the West Bank, in the first of three withdrawals aimed at placing the territory under Palestinian control. The Palestinians called the withdrawal insufficient, and have demanded that Israel pull out up to 30 percent of the territory in the first stage.

Jordan's King Hussein, one of Israel's few Arab allies, spoke for many Arabs when he accused Netanyahu this week of destroying the peace process. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak warned that Palestinian resentment may -- in his word -- "explode."

Netanyahu has also been urged by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the European Union's Parliament, and the United Nations General Assembly to abandon the decision to build in East Jerusalem. Israel's chief ally, the United States, also said it regretted the move. Washington did, however, use its veto on the UN Security Council to reject a resolution calling on Israel to refrain from building, saying such a resolution would not have a positive effect.

Tragically, one effect of yesterday's killings of the Israeli schoolgirls may be to soften some of the hardline positions taken in recent days.

King Hussein said he was angry, remorseful and shamed by the deaths, and vowed to to all that he could to encourage peace.

Arafat, who had broken all contact with the Israelis, resumed communications with a telephone call to Netanyahu to express his regret and sorrow.

But Arafat remained vigorously opposed to the East Jerusalem construction project. He told reporters today Arafat that he would meet with Netanyahu only if the Israeli leader agreed to abide by the peace accords.

Israel, meanwhile, has condemned Arafat's international conference in Gaza tomorrow as a violation of the peace accords. Israel, which was not invited to the meeting, has also expressed disappointment that the U.S. agreed to send a representative to hear Arafat.

Netanyahu also has shown no sign of yielding to pressure to cancel the decision to build in East Jerusalem. At a funeral ceremony for the slain Israeli school girls last night, Netanyahu called Jerusalem Israel's eternal capital, and said his country's spirit could not be broken.

The Israeli cabinet today set Monday as the date for construction to begin.