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Israel breaks ground for housing project

Surrounded by a thick cordon of soldiers and cameras, Israeli bulldozers scraped the first muddy ruts Tuesday for the construction of the new Jewish neighborhood at the focus of the latest crisis in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's stormy dealings with the Palestinians.

While the long-feared arrival of the bulldozers passed peacefully, it was accompanied by a media blitz from Netanyahu, who in several interviews demanded an end to the "hyperbole" surrounding the project and said he had intelligence reports that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had given a "green light" to all terrorist organizations to mount attacks against Israel.

Arafat made no statement as he met in Gaza with two Israelis identified with the peace _ the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's son, Yuval, and the leader of the leftist Meretz Party, Yossi Sarid. Asked if he had urged his people against violent confrontation, Arafat said, "I have done it."

After two weeks of harsh exchanges and international condemnations of the project, the arrival of the earth-moving equipment was more akin to a military operation than a construction project.

Soldiers in riot gear trotted alongside trucks carrying the bulldozers as they crept to the base of the hill in Arab-populated East Jerusalem, where the Har Homa housing project is to rise.

Police blocked off surrounding roads, while more soldiers in full field kit fanned out across a neighboring hill and took up positions behind stone walls.

All that was missing was an enemy.

The only opposition on the first day of the operation was from a handful of Palestinians led by Faisal al-Husseini, the Palestinian representative in Jerusalem, who pitched a few tents on a neighboring wind-scoured hill and, when the bulldozers arrived, walked down the hill until they were turned back by soldiers.

A scuffle broke out when the soldiers also turned back a few Palestinian students, and some stone-throwing was reported elsewhere, but, for now at least, none of the incidents approached the violence repeatedly predicted by Israeli security chiefs.

Watching dejectedly from behind a police barricade, Mustafa Abu Teir, a 55-year-old resident of the Arab town of Umm Tuba, which overlooks the Har Homa site, said: "Is there anything more difficult than this? Someone takes your land, and you can only watch. But what can we do? We can do nothing. They're strong, and we're weak."

Netanyahu sought to take the offensive against the Palestinians after weeks in which Israel has been on the defensive over the housing project.

"Today we're carrying out the prayer of a generation," Netanyahu declared on a tour of the Negev city of Dimona. "Today we're building in Jerusalem."