Yasser Arafat accused Israel on Wednesday of declaring war on Palestinians by expanding West Bank settlements, and the Palestinian legislative council called for an end to contacts with the Jewish state.
The Palestinian leader’s attack was his toughest yet on the 3-month-old government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ordering a general strike today and mass prayers Friday to protest planned expansion of Jewish settlements.
“They declared war on us,” Arafat said.
Arafat’s strike call appeared to signal a return to tactics reminiscent of the Palestinian uprising, and his tough rhetoric indicated deepening loss of faith in peace and a reversion to words of war.
The moves came in response to Israeli plans to build 900 new apartments in the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Sefer and Israel’s demolition this week of a youth center in disputed east Jerusalem.
The new West Bank settlements would end a four-year curb on expansion.
Palestinians have also become increasingly bitter over Netanyahu’s refusal to meet with Arafat and his failure to commit to withdrawing troops from most of the West Bank city of Hebron, as agreed in the self-rule accords.
Netanyahu reacted angrily to Arafat’s challenge, saying Israel takes “a very grave view of all attempts to bring about an escalation or violence that are likely to harm the peace process.”
David Bar-Illan, a top aide to the prime minister, called the council’s move “muscle-flexing” and “an unfortunate escalation of rhetoric.”
But dovish Israeli opposition leaders blamed Netanyahu, saying his intransigence toward the Palestinians would lead to violence.
Arafat was present at the council meeting that called for ending contact with Israel and did not oppose the action. He has the authority to make the final decision on whether to continue relations with Israel.
Netanyahu “has changed the policies against peace,” deputy council speaker Rahi Sayouh said. “It is necessary for the Palestinian people to draw up a comprehensive plan to confront Israel’s declaration of war against the Palestinian people.”
The general strike - the first ordered by the Palestinian leadership since the start of self-rule in May 1994 - was scheduled to last from 8 a.m. to noon today.