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Palestinians battle Israeli troops over housing project

Palestinian anger over construction of Jewish housing in East Jerusalem boiled over Thursday as hundreds of Arab youths pelted Israeli soldiers in Bethlehem with rocks and gasoline bombs.

"Jerusalem is ours," Arab youths taunted the soldiers in Hebrew.

The army responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon, but the three-hour clash seemed restrained in comparison with riots during the stone-throwing 1987-1993 Palestinian intifada against Israeli occupation.

At least one Palestinian youth was injured, apparently by an Israeli percussion grenade, and 14 were treated at a hospital for tear gas inhalation after the street battles near Rachel's Tomb on the outskirts of Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem.

Palestinian police intervened to calm the protesters after days of warnings by Israeli security chiefs and PLO leaders that violence could erupt over Israel's groundbreaking Tuesday for 6,500 housing units in an historically Arab district of southeastern Jerusalem.

In Helsinki, where President Clinton was meeting Russian President Boris Yeltsin, White House spokesman Michael McCurry welcomed an Israeli proposal to speed up faltering negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

But McCurry urged Israel to present the initiative, which calls for the two sides to abandon the step-by-step approach outlined in a 1993 agreement and begin expedited talks on a permanent settlement, directly to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

PLO leaders have dismissed the offer by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a stunt to divert attention from the housing complex. The apartments could accommodate up to 30,000 Israelis on a forested hillside called Har Homa in Hebrew and Jabal Abu Ghneim in Arabic.

"The Palestinians are deeply suspicious," observed a Western diplomat in Jerusalem. "They feel it is a ploy by Netanyahu to sidestep and avoid implementing commitments of the Interim Agreement."

Under that 1995 accord, Israel is committed to making three troop withdrawals in the West Bank by mid-1998, but Netanyahu has balked at executing the large pullbacks demanded by PLO chairman Yasser Arafat.

"They (the PLO leadership) think his objective is to end up with the final-status agreement without giving up any more territory to the Palestinians than the Palestinians have now," added the diplomat. "Their reaction to the offer is decidedly hostile and deeply suspicious."

Both Israel and the PLO claim Jerusalem as their capital, and the fate of the city was supposed to be discussed in "final status" talks. But Arafat and the PLO leadership view Har Homa as an attempt to establish facts on the ground in advance of those talks.

Israel contends it can build anywhere it chooses in its capital, but the Palestinians are outraged. Although Arafat has called for only peaceful protest, tempers flared Thursday.

"The intifada has returned," declared Joma Obeh, 45, a Palestinian garage owner watching the clashes in Bethlehem. "Everyone is angry because Israel took the land at Jabal Abu Ghneim. America gives the Jews the right to do that."

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