Palestinians urged to lead cease-fire efforts

Friday, January 2, 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- A senior Egyptian official pressed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Thursday to lead the way toward ending three years of violence with Israel, saying he is hopeful the response will be positive. The Egyptian truce efforts came amid signs the Palestinians are growing concerned over Israel's threat to abandon peacemaking and draw its own border with the Palestinians. Osama el-Baz, a top aide to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, voiced optimism after his meeting with Arafat.

"We are deeply concerned to get out of this problematic situation which threatens the whole region," he said. "What I heard from President Arafat makes me more hopeful for the future."

With Egyptian backing, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia has been trying for months to persuade militant groups to halt attacks on Israel.

That could pave the way toward a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and full-fledged negotiations on the U.S.-backed "road map" -- a peace plan that envisions an independent Palestinian state by 2005.

The road map requires the Palestinians to disarm the militant groups and the Israelis to freeze settlement construction -- steps neither side has taken, with Israel insisting the Palestinians must go first. The plan does not prescribe details on final borders and other issues.

Last month, Sharon said if there is no progress on the road map, he would move to unilaterally redraw the lines between Israel and the Palestinians.

Sharon hasn't detailed his plans, but said the Palestinians would do far better under a negotiated settlement. Aides suggest the plan would leave Israel effectively holding onto sparsely populated areas adding up to almost half the West Bank, and dismantling some settlements in the area fully evacuated.

El-Baz urged Arafat, whom Israel and the United States accuse of fomenting terrorism, to act quickly to improve the environment.

"We, from our side, should take decisions and measures that can lead the way to a better future," el-Baz said. "Then, we hope the Israelis will do the same."

Arafat, who has been confined to Ramallah for two years by Israeli troops, said only that they had discussed "the problems that we face as the Palestinian people."

Although Arafat gave no promises, there were some signs of possible movement in the Palestinian position.

A senior Palestinian official told The Associated Press that there are growing concerns among the Palestinian leadership about Sharon's threatened go-it-alone plan, which might create the impression worldwide that the occupation is over and the Palestinian problem resolved.

Syria's recent overture about resuming peace talks with Israel has also set off alarm bells with the Palestinians, the official said.

If those talks were to resume, it could take attention away from the Palestinian cause and also lead to Syria expelling Palestinian militant groups from Damascus.

The Palestinian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Palestinians hope to reach an understanding with the United States over a cease-fire that would precede the thorny question of how to dismantle the militant groups.

One possibility being discussed in back channels is for militant groups such as Hamas to voluntarily lay down their arms in exchange for a share of power in the Palestinian government -- something Arafat has hesitated to concede.

Khatem Abdel Khader, a Palestinian lawmaker who took part in Thursday's meeting, said Egypt is pressing the militant groups to resume truce talks. A meeting of the groups last month in Cairo ended without agreement.

Palestinian sources said the United States has through intermediaries been involved in efforts to get Hamas to commit to the truce.

Israel has insisted it would accept nothing less than a full disarming of the militants. But recently, officials have hinted that Israel might respond favorably to a cease-fire.

A failed Israeli air strike this week, aimed at two militants from the Hamas group, has complicated the outlook for a truce.

Hamas, responsible for most of the more than 100 suicide bombings that killed hundreds of Israelis in the past three years, had appeared to scale back its operations in recent weeks -- but vowed revenge after the air strike.

Palestinian officials said Thursday's meeting had also been aimed at repairing relations with Egypt, a week after Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher was assaulted by a Palestinian crowd during a visit to a key Jerusalem holy site.

In other developments:

-- In the West Bank city of Nablus, two Israeli soldiers were seriously wounded when militants detonated a bomb, the army said. The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, loosely linked to Arafat's Fatah movement, took responsibility. The army has been carrying out raids in Nablus for more than two weeks.

-- The Israeli army said it had removed a blockade of the West Bank town of Jenin, a center of militant activity. It said the move -- imposed a week ago because of many terror "alerts" -- would allow pedestrians and vehicles to move in and out of the town.

-- About 400 demonstrators clashed for a second straight day with Israeli troops in the West Bank village of Budrus, where Israel is building its security barrier. Protesters said about 45 people were injured, including one person shot by a rubber-coated bullet. Witnesses said the army opened fire after protesters began throwing rocks at soldiers. No army comment was available.

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