THE faltering Israel-PLO peace process is under threat as criticism has mounted over Israel's decision two weeks ago to seize 133 acres of mainly Arab-owned land in East Jerusalem for Jewish housing and a police station.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin tried to defuse the controversy just before today's debate in the United Nations Security Council on the land issue. But Palestinian and Arab leaders, as well as Israeli human rights advocates, continued to demand a reversal of the seizures.
They say the seizures cut across the spirit of the 1993 Israel-PLO accord and are an attempt by Israel to influence the outcome of future talks on the status of Israel and creating a Palestinian state.
The Israeli government's action was seen as a bow to conservative demands to boost the Jewish population in Jerusalem at the expense of the Arabs before any deal is reached regarding the city's future status and the extension of Palestinian autonomy to the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The latest expropriations of mainly Arab-owned land were part of a ''policy of systematic and deliberate discrimination'' against Jerusalem's Palestinian population, said Eitan Felner of B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.
Following an Israeli Cabinet meeting yesterday, a government minister said that Mr. Rabin had stood by his decision to seize the land, but had promised there would be no further expropriation of Arab land in East Jerusalem without prior consent of Palestinian leaders.
''It was said openly [in the Cabinet] that it is going to be the last one,'' said Communications Minister Shulamit Aloni of the left-wing Meretz Party, whose leader, Environment Minister Yossi Sarid has been calling for seizures to be frozen.
Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin, a leading Labor Party dove, has also called for a rethink on the latest expropriations.
The United States, which has expressed reservations about the seizures but resisted a UN debate, stands alone in defending the Israeli action and has committed itself to vetoing any Security Council resolution condemning Israel.
Leaders of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization and leaders in the Arab world have warned that the seizures could wreck the faltering peace accord between Israel and the PLO unless they are reversed and further expropriations halted.
''I think this is ... killing the peace process,'' said Faisal al-Husseini, the PLO's chief representative in Jerusalem.
Moderate Arab states like Morocco and Jordan have vehemently protested the decision and yesterday the secretary-general of the 22-nation Arab League, Esmat Abdel-Meguid, a former Egyptian foreign minister, said the organization was considering holding an emergency summit to discuss the seizures.
Tussle over Jerusalem
The latest expropriations of Arab-owned land in East Jerusalem are part of Israeli plans to seize up to 1,000 acres of Arab land for new Jewish housing in Jerusalem where Mayor Ehud Olmert has declared himself in favor of increasing the ratio of Jews to Arabs by tens of thousands.
Jerusalem is the most sensitive issue on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations agenda.
Since Israel annexed Arab East Jerusalem after conquering the territory in the Six-Day War with Jordan and the Arab world in 1967, it has pursued a campaign of building Jewish homes.
The 155,000 Arabs in East Jerusalem are today outnumbered by about 160,000 Jews.
Israel claims the city as its ''eternal capital'' and PLO Chairman Arafat has said he is prepared to fight a holy war (jihad) to ensure that Palestinians realize their dream of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
B'Tselem yesterday published a report detailing the ongoing expansion of Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem, which highlighted ''flagrant discrimination between the Jewish neighborhoods and Palestinian neighborhoods as regards planning, building, and development.''
The report found that since 1967 some 88 percent of all housing units built had been for Jewish occupation compared with only 12 percent for Arabs. It said that not a single Arab neighborhood had been created since 1967, and that the gap between Arab and Jewish housing had reached critical proportions.
''The blatant use of expropriation in East Jerusalem totally ignores the basic needs of the city's Palestinians,'' Mr. Felner said.