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Arab States Talk Peace, but Violence Still Rages

Summit: Leaders struggle for solutions as hopes wane for an accord with Israel. Some demand a holy war, and Saudi Arabia offers Palestinians financial aid.


CAIRO — Struggling to balance waning aspirations for peace with anguished cries for holy war after three weeks of bloodletting, leaders from 21 Arab nations put forward a range of proposals Saturday for closing ranks--from a $1-billion balm for the Palestinians, including the families of scores killed in clashes with Israeli troops, to renewed isolation of the Jewish state.

Opening a two-day emergency Arab League summit here even as at least four more Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli soldiers, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sought to create an atmosphere of restraint. Along with the leaders of other moderate Arab states, he stressed a continuing commitment to the peace process.

Yet even Mubarak conceded: "Israeli actions and practices push the peace issue into an extremely difficult predicament and a real ordeal."

The "belligerent attitude" Israel has shown, he added--"terrorizing innocent civilians, killing unarmed children" and other "reckless practices" since the violence began in Jerusalem last month at Islam's third-holiest shrine--"threatens the very essence of peace."

The Arab League's first heads-of-state summit in four years--also attended by representatives of the Palestinian Authority--is scheduled to end today with a joint communique. It was convened to send a unified message of outrage to Israel and unflagging support to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who used the meeting to give his first public account of the recent violence.

The leaders also hope to send a strong enough message to Israel to blunt a growing popular unrest throughout the Arab world.

But in a region where the quest for unity has ranged from quixotic to oxymoronic, the dozen speakers who addressed the group Saturday hardly spoke in one voice.

Libya's delegation walked out after the speeches, vowing not to return and convinced, as Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi earlier had said, that the group's final declaration will be "toothless."

Iraq's representative, invited to attend such a gathering for the first time since the nation's 1990 invasion of Kuwait split the Arab League and ostracized Baghdad from the group, read a 25-page message from President Saddam Hussein that asserted: "Holy war is the only way to free Palestine."

President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, where 17 American sailors where killed in the Oct. 12 bombing of the warship Cole, declared that normalizing relations with Israel "has weakened us."

"Yes to holy war," he said. "Yes to donations. Yes to sending weapons [to the Palestinians]. But we are not calling for war."

Surrounded by friends and supporters, Arafat, for his part, made his case for the origins of the violence and offered his own take on the future of peace in the region.

Appearing grim yet somehow hopeful, the Palestinian leader told the delegates gathered in the Convention Hall in Cairo's Nasser City district that the spiral of killing was a "premeditated," Israeli-backed plan to escalate tensions in the region, beginning with former Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to the site in Jerusalem's Old City known to Muslims as Haram al Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount. And Arafat began his speech with the Koranic verse describing the prophet Muhammad's dream trip from Mecca to the Jerusalem shrine.

"With this studied, planned and Israeli-government-coordinated step, [Sharon] ignited the spark, and fire spread to all the Arab, Islamic and Christian cities and villages," Arafat asserted, his lips quivering slightly as he spoke.

"It was a plan agreed upon with the Israeli government . . . intended to add a new dimension to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is a religious dimension, and which is very dangerous and difficult to contain," he said.

Arafat declared that when he learned of Sharon's plans to visit the site, he warned the Israeli and U.S. governments of dire consequences--a claim that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has denied.

The Palestinian leader did not address his ability to control the anti-Israeli violence that Sharon's visit unleashed, but he warned that "the region is explosive" and that "the violence threatens not only our lands but the international security and stability."

Still, Arafat concluded: "Despite the wounds and the disappointment, I reiterate that our choice still lies in a permanent, just and comprehensive peace."

Such a sentiment seemed to prevail throughout the hours of remarks by the Arab world's most powerful leaders, although Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah surprised many with his harder-than-expected stance toward Israel.

The prince made the most concrete proposal of the day, pledging one-fourth of what he said should be $1 billion worth of new funds to finance projects that would promote Jerusalem's Islamic and Arabic identity, enable "our Palestinian brothers to stand on their own" and assist the families of the Palestinians killed during the recent violence.

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