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Palestinians set date for mass demonstrations

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RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) -- Palestinian officials said Monday they plan to begin mass marches against Israel's occupation of the West Bank on Sept. 20, the eve of a largely symbolic U.N. vote expected to recognize their independence.

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Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo said leaders hope to attract millions, and the protest will be the first of a prolonged effort. He said the campaign would be called "Palestine 194," since the Palestinians hope to become the 194th member of the United Nations.

"The appeal to the U.N. is a battle for all Palestinians, and in order to succeed, it needs millions to pour into streets," he said.

With peace talks stalled, the Palestinians have decided to ask the U.N. to endorse their independence. They plan to ask the powerful Security Council, whose decisions are legally binding, for approval as a full member of the world body.

The U.S. opposes the Palestinian initiative and has signaled it will use its veto power in the council to defeat the measure.

That would force the Palestinians to turn to the much larger General Assembly, where they enjoy widespread support. While a vote there would be symbolic, the Palestinians believe any international endorsement will isolate Israel and improve their position if negotiations resume.

Israeli-Palestinian talks have been stalled for nearly three years, and the Palestinians refuse to resume negotiations unless Israel halts settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem -- captured areas claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes the U.N. move and says all issues, including settlements and the borders of a future Palestinian state, must be solved through negotiations. U.S. mediators have been unable to find a formula to restart talks.

While Abed Rabbo said all Palestinian demonstrations would be nonviolent, Israeli security officials have repeatedly expressed concern that mass unrest could quickly turn violent.

Israel's military chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, warned a parliamentary committee this week that "there is potential for a confrontation in September."

He said the military expects "many thousands of people to conduct a quiet and nonviolent protest" that would move toward Israeli settlements or Israel proper. "The military will not be able to place the settlements at risk in such cases," he was quoted as saying.

Gantz's comments were relayed by a participant in Sunday's meeting. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the testimony was in a closed session.

Israeli leaders have appealed to the Palestinians to drop their U.N. initiative. Abed Rabbo said Monday that Netanyahu scuttled a secret meeting last week meant to head off the looming diplomatic showdown.

He said Israeli President Shimon Peres called his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, and asked to meet, promising to bring some creative ideas for defusing the crisis.

Abed Rabbo said Abbas traveled to neighboring Jordan for the secret meeting last Thursday, but at the last minute, Peres called to cancel, saying that Netanyahu opposed his ideas.

Both Peres' and Netanyahu's offices declined comment.

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