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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israel Breaks Ground On Disputed Housing

JERUSALEM -- Israeli bulldozers broke ground Tuesday for a Jewish neighborhood in disputed east Jerusalem despite world condemnation and intelligence warnings that the decision would unleash Palestinian riots.

A ring of hundreds of troops blocked off the site. Soldiers scuffled with Palestinian protesters nearby and blocked them from reaching the hill slated for construction, known to Israelis as Har Homa and to Palestinians as Jabal Abu Ghneim.

"With our bodies, we will protect Jabal Abu Ghneim," the demonstrators chanted.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, risking international isolation, forged ahead with the project as a show of determination that Israel would not yield its control over all of the city, including the sector it captured in 1967.

The building project was also a test of resolve for the Palestinians, who want to establish a future capital in east Jerusalem and warned that Israel's decision could collapse the peace process.

"We are standing at the crossroads at which this peace process will succeed or die mercilessly," said Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinian parliament speaker, after joining the protesters.

The Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas called Tuesday for a Palestinian uprising to protest the start of work at the planned Israeli settlement.

"The Palestinian Authority should answer the call of the Palestinian people to go into continuous intifada [uprising]," Hamas spokesman Ibrahim Ghoshe said.

Ghoshe criticized Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat "for using only peaceful means" to protest.

The final decision to start breaking ground Tuesday came after a morning meeting by Netanyahu, senior Cabinet ministers and security chiefs.

At 2:45 p.m., a convoy of four flatbed trucks carrying bulldozers and cranes reached Har Homa, escorted by police and soldiers. One bulldozer started moving earth at the bottom of the hill, apparently to prepare an access road to the construction site.

Israel's deputy chief of staff arrived at the scene to take command, and army helicopters hovered above.

Dozens of Palestinians, who had set up six rain-drenched protest tents on a rocky slope nearby late Monday, began walking toward the convoy. But they were stopped by Israeli troops.

"Israel is escalating the situation," said Faisal Husseini, the top Palestinian official in Jerusalem who was among the protesters. "We feel we must confront their plans."

As tension grew, the chance of a meeting between Netanyahu and Arafat appeared increasingly slim, despite U.S. and Jordanian efforts to bring the two leaders together.

Arafat does not want to meet with Netanyahu unless Israel suspends its decision to build in east Jerusalem, the sector the Palestinians claim as a future capital, Palestinian officials said.

Netanyahu has said he would not back down, despite last week's wall-to-wall condemnation of Israel by the UN General Assembly and warnings by his security chiefs that the construction might trigger violent Palestinian protests and perhaps also terror attacks in Israel.

In Tuesday's Cabinet meeting, security officials told the ministers that Arafat had given the green light for violence against Israel, radio reports said. Police reinforcements were deployed to try and thwart possible terror attacks, the radio said.

Palestinian officials have suggested they might not be able to contain their people's anger should construction begin -- but there is widespread belief in Israel that violence would only occur if Arafat gives his tacit approval.

Hanan Ashrawi, minister for higher education in Arafat's Cabinet, said Tuesday that Israel would be to blame for a collapse of peace making and an outbreak of violence.

"This is a provocative, irresponsible and illegal action," Ashrawi said of the government's decision to start building.

"It is a deliberate Israeli step to destroy the peace process. I hope that there are no confrontations. But if there are, I blame Israel and I caution them against using violence," she said.

Preparing for possible riots, the army early Tuesday declared the site slated for construction a closed military area to prevent more Palestinian demonstrators from reaching the scene. Despite the closure, several dozen Israeli peace activists slipped through checkpoints and joined the Palestinians in their tents.

The Israelis raised a poster of the Israeli and Palestinian flags with the slogan: "Two peoples, two states, one future." (AP, Reuters)