Palestinians see U.S. pledge on statehood as positive sign

Sunday, March 16, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian legislators said Saturday the U.S. administration's promise to adhere to last year's "road map" for Palestinian statehood was a positive sign, signaling that President Bush would push for the plan's implementation without any changes.

Still, some argue the plan has yet to clear its biggest hurdle: getting the Israelis and Palestinians to agree on how and when it is to be implemented.

Bush said Friday he would present the "road map" once a credible Palestinian prime minister took power. The Palestinian Legislative Council is expected to decide later this week whether to approve Yasser Arafat's choice of Mahmoud Abbas, an executive in the PLO, for the new position. Palestinians have clearly said it will be Arafat who retains control in negotiations and security.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said U.S. Mideast envoy David Satterfield reassured him Saturday that the United States would stick to the draft plan presented last year. He also said it was time to talk about implementation, Erekat said.

"This is significant because it means the United States won't support changes, even if those changes come from Israel," Erekat said.

The three-phase plan was put together by the so-called Quartet of Mideast mediators -- the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. Although Bush said he would present it soon, a draft already was presented last year.

In phase one, Palestinians would carry out government reforms and crack down on militants, while Israel would withdraw from Palestinian towns. Israel would then recognize a Palestinian state in temporary borders by the end of 2003. Negotiations on full statehood would come in stage three, with completion in 2005.

Several obstacles already exist in phase one. Although the Palestinian Authority has started reforming finances and is working on approving the creation of a prime minister -- two conditions demanded by the United States -- Arafat has failed to rein in militants.

Israel has disputed parts of the plan, saying its advancement must depend on whether the Palestinians meet their commitments. Since the start of renewed fighting 29 months ago, Israel has occupied most West Bank towns and villages and staged raids in Gaza Strip -- another potential stumbling block in phase one of the plan.

"Any further discussions to be made on the implementation of the road map will be wasting time," said Ghassan Khatib, Palestinian Labor Minister.

While some hailed Bush's announcement Friday as promising, other were suspicious over its timing. President Bush and his administration has been accused of putting Middle East peace talks on the backburner while focusing on efforts to disarm Iraq.

The road map may have an another obstacle in the new Israeli government headed by Sharon, who while promising to halt new Jewish settlement activity, has said existing settlements will be developed. Bush said Friday for peace to take root, settlement activity had to be stopped.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two groups that have claimed responsibility for attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis, rejected Bush's remarks and called them a "bribe" to pursue military action against Iraq. The two groups are against negotiating with Israel.

It is a "bribe and a ploy, offered as (Bush) continues the final preparations for aggression against Iraq, while at the same time he remains silent, and even covers up (Israeli) crimes against the Palestinian people," the joint statement said.

On Saturday, thousands of Palestinians gathered in the Gaza Strip -- considered a stronghold of Hamas -- and the West Bank town of Hebron to protest possible war against Iraq. Holding pictures of Saddam Hussein, some burned American and Israeli flags, and declared their solidarity with Iraq.

Meanwhile, two Palestinian gunmen shot and killed two Palestinian men they accused of being collaborators with Israeli intelligence agents.

The Israeli army tightened its closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Saturday night. A military statement said no Palestinians would be allowed to enter Israel for fear of attacks by militants against Israelis during the Jewish holiday of Purim, which starts Tuesday.

The closure took effect at midnight and was to continue until further notice, the statement said, adding that the border between the West Bank and Jordan would remain open.

In Lebanon, meanwhile, Hezbollah guerrillas claimed responsibility for firing anti-aircraft missiles Saturday at two Israeli warplanes they said "violated Lebanese sovereignty." The missiles exploded in the air, causing no injuries or damage.

Since Israeli troops withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000, Israeli military aircraft routinely have flown over Lebanon on apparent reconnaissance missions.

The incident came amid concerns that the Lebanese-Israeli border could erupt in fighting if there is a U.S.-led attack on Iraq.

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