Palestinian Authority accused in deaths of Arab land dealers

JERUSALEM — Rising Israeli-Palestinian tensions over the murders of Arab land dealers may further diminish chances of reviving the stalled peace negotiations.

Israeli officials are accusing the Palestinian Authority of direct responsibility for the recent murders and of threatening Palestinian employees of the Israeli government.

Palestinian officials are sharply denying the accusations.

The tensions made the city of Jerusalem seem more divided than ever this week as Israel celebrated the 30th anniversary of the city's reunification during the Six-Day War.

Israel lodged a formal complaint this week with the Palestinian Authority over the killings.

In a letter sent to chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, Cabinet secretary Danny Naveh accused Palestinian officials of encouraging violence.

"We emphatically demand that the Palestinian council and its executive authority fulfill their obligation and undertaking under the peace agreements to immediately and effectively cease all such acts of incitement," the letter said.

It added that Israel would have to "consider carefully" the Palestinian stance on the killings before resuming the peace talks, which broke off in mid-March.

Israel also issued an arrest warrant Tuesday for a Palestinian official in connection to the murders.

"At this stage the investigation shows he was directly involved and we intend to detain him the moment he leaves the limits of the Palestinian Authority," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Although the official was not named, Israeli police earlier this week said Tawfik Tawari, the head of Palestinian intelligence in the West Bank, was suspected of involvement in the murders.

Stepped-up Israeli efforts aimed at ending the killings came after the slain body of an Arab land dealer was found Saturday near the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Ali Mohammad Jumhour was the third Arab land broker to be killed since Palestinian Justice Minister Freih Abu Medein announced last month that Arabs selling land to Jews were committing a crime punishable by death.

Jumhour, who had an Israeli identity card, was killed in the same fashion as the two previous victims — by shots to the head at close range.

The Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported Monday that the Palestinian Authority had ordered the murders of 16 Arab land dealers who sold or allegedly planned to sell land to Jews.

Israeli police had a list of the names and had alerted a number of the land dealers, Ha'aretz said.

The three land dealers killed in recent weeks were among those on the list.

An Israeli security official was quoted as saying that some of those on the list had hired bodyguards.

The Palestinian Authority broadcast a statement on Voice of Palestine Radio, saying that while selling land to Jews was a crime punishable by death, it would only be implemented after legal proceedings.

The statement said no trials were held preceding the three murders, which it said proved that the self-rule government was not involved.

Israel Radio reported that a group calling itself the "Guardians of the Holy Lands" had claimed responsibility for the murders.

In an anonymous phone call to an Arabic-language newspaper, a member of the group said it would soon issue a statement on the killings.

Meanwhile, a governmental committee on Jerusalem discussed the murders Monday and decided to allocate a budget to beef up the police presence in eastern Jerusalem by 400 officers.

Israeli officials are giving Arab land dealers flares and stun grenades to protect themselves, Israel Television reported.

"We are stepping up protection for them," Netanyahu said. "No protection is hermetic, but we are making every effort."

Netanyahu praised the work of the police, who apprehended six Palestinians earlier this week during an attempted abduction of another land dealer, Assad Rajibi.

Acting on intelligence information, officers had gone to Rajibi's home near the Shuafat refugee camp near Jerusalem and spotted two cars speeding toward the West Bank town of Ramallah.

After a chase, police arrested the six abductors and freed Rajibi.

The abductors were armed, and four of them were identified as Palestinian security agents who had documents linking them to the two previous murders of land dealers.

Rajibi told a news conference Monday that there had been a misunderstanding, and that he had been traveling to Ramallah of his own free will.

In a related development, Arab employees at the Interior Ministry's branch in eastern Jerusalem returned to work on Tuesday after police were stationed in the area to ensure their safety.

The office had shut down for four days after Palestinian workers failed to report to work, saying they had received threats on their lives.

Israel's Interior Ministry has requested a police investigation of Arab media reports that the Palestinian Authority views all Arabs working for the ministry as collaborators.

Meanwhile, the battle over Jerusalem entered Arab schools after Mayor Ehud Olmert announced that he would make sure that Israeli educators, and not Palestinian officials, oversaw matriculation exams this week.

Olmert said he would set up a special committee to work toward the full integration of the curriculum in the city's Arab schools with schools in Israeli Arab communities.

Although Israel annexed eastern Jerusalem after the 1967 war, Jordan, and later the Palestinian Authority, was allowed to handle educational planning.

Against this backdrop of escalating Israeli-Palestinian tensions, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's top political aide, Osama Al-Baz, resumed consultations this week with the two sides in an effort to find a formula to renew negotiations.

Baz's shuttle effort comes in the wake of last week's summit between Netanyahu and Mubarak.

After Netanyahu met Sunday with Baz, the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement that some progress had been made toward resolving the problems between the sides.

But Erekat, who was scheduled to meet this week with Baz, was less optimistic.

The chief Palestinian negotiator said talks he held in Cairo over the weekend were not encouraging, and that there were still wide gaps between the Israeli and Palestinian sides.