JERUSALEM — Israel's right-wing government, now beginning its 10th month in power, is boldly moving to cement its hold on another slice of the holy city of Jerusalem.
It plans to build 6,500 apartments for Jewish residents on a hilltop called Har Homa in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem. The move may echo Israel's opening in September of an archaeological tunnel near a Muslim holy site. In the ensuing uproar, 76 people were killed as Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers clashed.
Now, as in September, Palestinians are decrying the plan as an assault on the peace process and an encroachment on the land they hope will be the capital of their independent state.
Their rhetoric seems threatening, but the political reality has shifted, making violence costly for both sides, especially Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
In a sign of what may be an underlying moderation, Palestinian protesters marching to Har Homa yesterday stopped at a nearby Israeli checkpoint, apparently under orders not to fight the soldiers.
"The atmosphere is very tense, but things were worse last September," says Albert Aghazarian, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank.
Israel has beefed up its troop presence in many Arab areas, but so far, there have only been Palestinian warnings of violence - not outright calls to instigate it. Palestinian students who would usually lead protests were meeting yesterday to discuss their reaction.
The top Palestinian official in Jerusalem, Faisal Husseini, said he smells "the same smell" that lingered in the air just before Israel's opening of the tunnel in September. But in a speech yesterday, Mr. Arafat declined to call for violent resistance.
Back in September, such restraint was hardly in evidence.
Mr. Netanyahu had not yet implemented any part of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and Arafat had little to lose by unleashing a few days of an armed Palestinian uprising.
And Palestinians were already in a state of angry frustration. Israel had knocked down a building in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem's Old City a few weeks earlier, and was making regular announcements about the expansion or Jewish settlements without any sign of implementing the peace accords, including a long-overdue redeployment from the West Bank town of Hebron.
Arafat had been snubbed all summer long as the newly elected Netanyahu held fast to his disdain over shaking the hand of man he deemed a incorrigible terrorist.
Arafat, in turn, feared that if he didn't lead the outrage against the new Israeli government and its breaking through the tunnel, the outrage would turn on him.
In contrast to September, several things may be giving Palestinians pause today:
* Since the fall, Netanyahu has made an evolutionary turn toward accepting the peace agreements reached by the Labor government he unseated in last year's elections.
He has pulled Israeli troops out of Hebron and agreed to make three further redeployments from the West Bank over the next 18 months.
Such moves make the government look significantly less intransigent than it did last summer, and Arafat would have a difficult time explaining violence as some sort of understandable frustration.
* Arafat is expected in Washington March 3 to meet with President Clinton, and he has already been warned that he should not stir up violence ahead of their meeting. The US issued a mild rebuke to Israel, saying it "would have preferred a different decision," but the main American response has been aimed at Arafat.
* Moreover, the first of the three pullbacks is due to take place by March 7. Israel currently plans to withdraw from 2 percent of the West Bank. But according to the Israeli media, Netanyahu and Arafat have verbally agreed that if the Palestinian response is nonviolent, Israel will boost its pull out to 10 percent. (Both Arafat and Netanyahu officially deny that this agreement exists.)
If violence erupts, however, Israel has suggested it won't withdraw at all.
So, Arafat may have more to gain in acquiring more West Bank land than in bloody clashes that could backfire on him.
Furthermore, some analysts estimate that the economic conditions in the territories, though still difficult, are not as severe as they were last September. Then, Israel's limitations on Palestinians entering Israel to find work was much more severe in the aftermath of Muslim suicide bombings months earlier.
Still, emotions run strong, especially because the building site is in the holy city.
Most Israelis see Har Homa, a hilltop that has gone undeveloped since it was captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, as Israel's rightful domain.
In a gesture that belies Netanyahu's leeriness about violence, he has pledged to allow 3,000 building permits in Jerusalem for Arabs. Moreover, he asserts, nothing in the 1993 peace accords explicitly bars Israel from building in Jerusalem.
"Israel has never made any secrets about keeping this city united," Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert said yesterday. Building could begin as early as next week, he said, pending an appeal by peace groups to the Supreme Court to stop the project.
Palestinians see the hilltop - which they call Jebel Abu Ghneim - as the final link in a ring of Jewish settlements around Jerusalem aimed at preventing the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
The low-lying mount covered in a blanket of pine trees is closer to Bethlehem than to downtown Jerusalem, and Palestinians believe that a new Jewish neighborhood here would geographically cut Arab Jerusalemites off from the West Bank. To them, anything over the "Green Line" of 1967 is a settlement and is a violation of the accords, since in the accords Jerusalem is up for negotiation in "final status" talks between the two peoples.
"This is not a way to build momentum for peace. This is going to choke Bethlehem and kill further development," says Zoughbi Zoughbi of the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center, whose office overlooks Har Homa. "This is the epitome of the tragedy of West Bank towns. Bethlehem is surrounded by settlements. Israel's idea is to create Bantustans like in South Africa."