Israel enters Jenin camp

Friday, May 17, 2002

Associated Press WriterNABLUS, West Bank (AP) -- Yasser Arafat on Friday linked his promise to hold elections to an Israeli troop pullback in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while Israeli forces hunting militants raided the battle-scarred Jenin refugee camp.

In new fighting, a 7-year-old Palestinian boy, an armed militiaman and an Israeli Arab woman riding in a taxi were killed by Israeli army fire in three separate incidents.

Arafat's aides reaffirmed Friday that the goal was to hold presidential and parliamentary elections within six months, and said preparations have begun, such as putting together a voter roster.

Israel was highly skeptical, saying linking a vote to a troop pullback was Arafat's way of escaping growing demands at home and abroad for greater democracy and reform.

Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said troops could only withdraw to the positions they held before the outbreak of fighting in September 2000 -- as the Palestinians now demand -- if Arafat fights terrorism.

"He knows very well that as long as he doesn't take any action against terrorism, Israeli forces will have to remain there," Gissin said.

A withdrawal to positions held 20 months ago would require the Israelis to remove dozens of checkpoints and pull back forces outside of major Palestinian cities.

Yet the withdrawal to those positions is also part of a U.S.-backed truce plan, whose author, CIA chief George Tenet, is expected to hold talks soon with security officials from both sides.

In the Palestinian areas, there is growing pressure on Arafat to reform his corruption-ridden Palestinian Authority and hold elections. While Arafat, an autocratic ruler, has resisted change in the past, it might be increasingly difficult do so now, with the United States and the European Union joining the chorus.

On Thursday, the Palestinian parliament issued a list of reform demands, including the disbanding of the Palestinian Cabinet and the formation of a new one within 45 days, and new general elections by early 2003.

Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath said that work on putting together rosters of 1.6 million eligible voters had already begun. The Palestinians Central Bureau of Statistics said it would need 60 days to complete the job, and that it would propose bringing in international monitors to guarantee a fair vote.

The Palestinians' Central Elections Committee will convene over the weekend to start preparations, officials said.

In addition to an Israeli troop pullback to September 2000 positions, the Palestinians also insist that residents of traditionally Arab east Jerusalem be permitted to vote, as they were in the last Palestinian election in 1996, Shaath said.

Arafat told reporters Friday that elections would be held "as soon as they (the Israelis) finish this occupation from our land, according to the agreement that was supposed to be at the beginning of 1999."

In 1999, Israel and the Palestinians were to have reached a final peace deal.

However, his advisers later clarified that the voting is being linked to a far more modest withdrawal demand.

Arafat's popularity has been sagging as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian fighting that caused great hardships to the residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel's recent six-week military offensive strengthened a sense among many Palestinians that their government is ineffective and unable to protect them.

Yet despite the widespread dissatisfaction, Arafat continues to be seen as a symbol of the Palestinian people and is not expected to face a strong challenge for leadership.

The Palestinians' first general elections were held in 1996 -- as part of interim peace agreements with Israel.

At the time, Arafat took 87 percent of the vote against Samiha Khalil, a female social worker in her 70s. Members of his Fatah faction won 50 of the 88 seats in the legislature.

Previous attempts to reform Arafat's administration have led to few significant changes, with Arafat ignoring laws passed by parliament as well as decisions by the judiciary.

In other developments Friday, exchanges of fire erupted shortly after Israeli forces reached the city of Jenin and the adjacent refugee camp around 3:30 a.m., witnesses said. But the army said its forces did not come under heavy fire.

In the refugee camp, soldiers surrounded the home of Jamal Abu Alhija, local leader of the militant Islamic group Hamas. Soldiers ordered the family to come out, but Alhija was not among them, said Alhija's son, Asam, age 14.

The family said it did not know where Alhija was, and the soldiers then set the empty house on fire, burning every room, Asam said.

In the city of Jenin, soldiers surrounded a building on a commercial street and were looking for at least one person they believed to be inside, but did not immediately take any action, witnesses said.

Several Israeli tanks also entered the West Bank city of Nablus, but troops made no arrests, and left after several hours, Palestinian witnesses said.

Last week, Israel completed a military offensive aimed at militants in the West Bank. The operation was launched March 29 following a series of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel.

Israeli forces have continued to make brief incursions into the West Bank to arrest or kill suspected militants.

Last month, the Jenin refugee camp was the scene of the heaviest fighting of the Israeli offensive. Israel lost 23 soldiers and more than 50 Palestinians were killed in the April 3-11 battle.

In the West Bank, a 7-yerar-old Palestinian boy was killed in his home when Israeli soldiers fired tank-mounted machine guns at stone-throwing Palestinians in the Askar refugee camp near Nablus, witnesses said.

Elsewhere in the West Bank, Israeli soldiers opened fire on a car with Israeli license plates they considered suspicious, killing a woman passenger in the vehicle, the military said.

In the Gaza Strip, an armed Palestinian was killed in an exchange of fire with Israeli soldiers Friday while he tried to enter the Jewish settlement of Dugit, the Israeli military said. The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a militia linked to Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the attempted infiltration.

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