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Netanyahu takes hard line on statehood

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JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a hard line Sunday on Palestinian statehood, telling his Cabinet that the Palestinians will not be allowed to determine Israel's borders.

"We will not allow Arafat and the Palestinians to determine the borders of our state and the future of our capital," he told his ministers, according to a statement released afterward.A senior Palestinian official, meanwhile, insisted Palestinians would achieve an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital -- something Israel has vowed never to allow.

In recent months, Palestinian plans to declare statehood have been a major point of contention. The Palestinians have said they have the right to declare a state in May whether or not terms have been negotiated with Israel.

Israel has called that stance irresponsible and dangerous and demanded that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat stop talking about any unilateral statehood declaration.

Palestinians have recently toned down statehood talk, fearing that resulting Israeli security jitters would give a boost to Netanyahu in May 17 elections.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, Palestinian parliament speaker Ahmed Qureia, also known as Abu Ala, criticized what he called Netanyahu's "arrogance and foolishness."

"We are ready and able to continue the struggle until our national rights are recognized -- our independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as our capital," he told lawmakers.

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres told Israel's Channel Two television that Arafat had expressed willingness to put off plans to declare statehood if peace talks resume. Arafat aides refused to confirm or deny that.

The increasingly bitter statehood debate comes as the U.S.-brokered Wye River peace accords, signed in October, continue to founder. Israel called off a promised troop withdrawal last month, citing what it said were Palestinian violations of the accord. The Palestinians deny violating the agreement, and say they will not meet new terms set by Israel.

U.S. mediator Dennis Ross was due in the region Monday to try to help get the accord back on track.

Although Israel's troop withdrawals from the West Bank have been put on hold, the director of Israel's finance ministry, Ben-Tsion Zilberfarb, traveled to Washington on Sunday to request $1.2 million in aid pledged to Israel to cover costs in the implementation of the peace accord.

Also Sunday, Palestinians marched in the West Bank town of Hebron to protest a curfew in the city's downtown. The curfew has been in effect since Monday, when gunmen opened fire on a van, wounding two Jewish settlers.

Israeli troops fired stun grenades and tear gas when a crowd of about 200 Palestinian marchers approached, trying to get to a landmark mosque to pray.