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Arafat gets U.S. backing in dispute

The United States joined other powers Saturday in tacit backing of Palestinian grievances against Israel, a quietly dramatic sign of the Jewish state's growing diplomatic isolation.

A sense of looming violence hovered over a half-day gathering at Yasser Arafat's seaside headquarters here, with Israel determined to break ground next week on a new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem and Palestinians determined to resist. Palestinians and Israeli commanders alike predicted confrontational rallies of the sort that have led to bloodshed in the past, and the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, issued strong intimations that its dormant bus-bombing campaign might resume.

Israeli and American officials disclosed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuffed a direct appeal from President Clinton to delay the Har Homa housing project, which would bring 30,000 Jewish residents to a pine-covered hill that Arabs call Jabal Abu Gheneim.

"I am building Har Homa next week and nothing is going to stop me," Netanyahu told the newspaper Maariv. "If they think they can frighten us, they are mistaken. I am determined in my position more than ever."

Saturday, over strong Israeli objections, the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, Edward Abington, joined delegates from Russia, the European Union, Japan, Norway, Egypt and Jordan at the Gaza meeting. All the delegates, including Abington, joined in criticism of the Har Homa plan.

The meeting "reflected the level of Palestinian frustration and the feeling of powerlessness," Abington said.

Arafat, while styling the meeting a "conference to save the peace process," has also interjected unmistakable notes of menace in the past week. On Monday, he held a bridge-building meeting with four senior leaders of Hamas, whose military capabilities he has quashed ruthlessly for 12 months. Immediately afterward he directed the release from a Gaza cell of Ibrahim Maqadmeh, the ranking figure in custody of the Hamas military wing, which is responsible for suicide bombings that killed scores of Israelis.

Arafat, asked what would happen when Israeli bulldozers began their work at Har Homa, advised them to direct the question to "the Palestinian masses." That amounted to an assertion that he cannot control the streets, something that Israel sharply disputes.

Netanyahu, maintaining that Israel need not negotiate or consult with Arafat over construction in Jerusalem, said there is a "Palestinian plan . . . to cause what appears to be "spontaneous violence.' " Alluding to an army contingency plan drawn up after four days of bloody clashes last September, Netanyahu said, "This time we are ready and determined."