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Official- Israel may deport Arafat if he undermines peace proce
JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon urged European leaders to cut off ties with Yasser Arafat, and a key Sharon aide said Saturday that Israel would consider deporting the Palestinian leader if he continued trying to "scuttle the peace process."
A senior Palestinian official said it was Sharon who was endangering peace moves with his "incitement" against Arafat, who is waging something of a power struggle against his moderate, U.S.-backed prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas.
The recriminations come at a delicate time, with violence markedly down but the sides deadlocked over Israel's demand that militants be disarmed and the Palestinians' demand that Israel release thousands of prisoners.
Both Sharon and Abbas are expected to travel to Washington in coming weeks for meetings that could be crucial to the "road map" peace plan aimed at ending 33 months of Mideast fighting and creating a Palestinian state by 2005.
Sharon, who also travels to London on Sunday to meet British Prime Minister Tony Blair, was quoted by Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper as saying European officials were making "a major mistake" by maintaining links with Arafat.
On Saturday, British parliamentarians visited Arafat at his headquarters in Ramallah.
"Every act of this nature only postpones the progress in the process," Sharon was quoted as saying. "By that they are undermining Abu Mazen," referring to Abbas by nickname.
Speaking to reporters after his meeting with the lawmakers, Arafat said Sharon's remarks did not surprise him.
"Is this the first time he says this? Did he forget what he said during the siege of Beirut?" Arafat said, referring to Israel's 1982 expulsion of Arafat and his loyalists from Lebanon.
Arafat spent over a decade in Tunis and returned to the Palestinian areas -- after a quarter-century's exile -- in 1994 under the interim peace accords that established autonomy in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Nationalists in Israel have called on Sharon to expel Arafat, who is accused by the United States and Israel of fanning the flames of terrorism against Israelis. But Sharon has bowed to U.S. pressure and to the assessment of his security advisers that Arafat could cause more harm in exile.
Sharon aide Raanan Gissin said Israel told the United States "that we would have no other choice but to re-examine the status and condition of Mr. Arafat due to the fact that he continues to attempt to scuttle the road map to peace and undermine Abu Mazen and his government in his efforts to implement the road map."
The issue of expelling Arafat would be subject to "renewed discussion" if Arafat did not mend his ways, he said.
Arafat has been stuck for about 18 months in his office building at his Ramallah compound, which was mostly destroyed by Israel's military. Israel's position is that he can travel abroad, but might not be allowed to return.
Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr said Sharon's comments amounted to "incitement" against Arafat and "can cause real harm for the peace process ... We call on the international community to keep dealing with the Palestinian leadership as usual, including President Arafat as (its) head."
Arafat has been partly sidelined since he reluctantly appointed Abbas to the newly created premier's post in April. But he retains considerable powers and remains the most popular Palestinian leader.
In recent days, Abbas came under scathing attack from Arafat loyalists for failing to wrest more concessions from Israel, and threatened to resign as prime minister unless Arafat's Fatah movement endorsed his handling of contacts with Israel. He also quit Fatah's Central Committee, though his resignation was rejected.
Despite a 2-week-old truce declared by Palestinian militant groups, implementation of the road map has been halting. Israel pulled troops out of parts of Gaza and the West Bank town of Bethlehem last week but refuses to hand over more towns until the Palestinian Authority disarms militant groups as required by the road map; Abbas is reluctant to do this for fear of civil war.
Sporadic violence has continued. Israeli soldiers shot and wounded two Palestinians Saturday in separate incidents near Khan Younis in the southern Gaza strip. Also, police were searching the West Bank for an Israeli taxi driver whose cab was found abandoned and idling in an Arab suburb of Jerusalem, amid fears he might have been kidnapped by Palestinian militants.
The Palestinians demand Israel release the estimated 7,000 Palestinian prisoners it holds, most on suspicion of involvement in terrorism. Israel has agreed to release several hundred only.
Underscoring the explosiveness of the prisoner issue, local Hamas leader Nizar Rayan told a rally in Gaza Friday that "if it won't be possible to free the prisoners within the framework of the (truce), we will return to kidnapping Israeli soldiers and officers" in order to swap them for prisoners.
In a sign of tensions between the Palestinian leadership and armed groups, members of the Islamic militant Hamas fired bullets and hand grenades at police cars in Gaza City after a Hamas member was shot by bodyguards for Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan on Thursday, a Palestinian security source said.