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THE MIDDLE EAST

Arafat Condemns Terror; Powell Meeting Back On

Mideast: 'We want deeds, not words,' a Sharon aide says. Hamas vows more attacks. Israel continues West Bank incursion.

April 14, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — After weeks of resisting U.S. requests, Yasser Arafat on Saturday condemned all violence and terrorism carried out against civilians, leading Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to reschedule his meeting with the Palestinian Authority president for today at his besieged headquarters in the West Bank.

"We strongly condemn the violent operations that target Israeli civilians, especially the recent operation in Jerusalem," the statement said, referring to a suicide bombing Friday that killed six Israelis and injured scores at a busy outdoor market here.

"We have to all work together . . . to stop the war" and relaunch the peace process, the statement said. Arafat's long-awaited denunciation of terrorism had taken on particular importance because the latest bombing was claimed by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to the Palestinian leader's Fatah movement.

Arafat's statement contained "a number of interesting and positive elements" that led Powell to decide to make the trip today to the West Bank city of Ramallah, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters traveling with the secretary.

Boucher commended Arafat's statement, which was issued after the Palestinian leader met with his top aides at his battered office compound, for its condemnation of terrorism, commitment to a negotiated peace, support for the Powell mission and call for immediate implementation of two earlier plans on security and a political settlement.

But U.S. officials refused to say that Arafat had met the long-standing U.S. demand to renounce terrorism and rein in the militants who have been behind a wave of 110 suicide bombings over the last 18 months. The value of Arafat's statement will be determined "by what action follows," Boucher said.

In their meeting, Powell will press Arafat to "show leadership" and "make these statements a reality with effective action" by ending the wave of terror against Israel and participating in an "early resumption of a political process," Boucher added.

America's top diplomat still faces daunting obstacles in making even minimal progress on his Mideast rescue mission.

After Arafat's statement was issued, the militant Islamic group Hamas pledged to continue its campaign of violence against Israel.

"We have the full right to react without any limitation against the state terrorism of Israel," said Hamas spokesman Ismail abu Shanab. Hamas is the second of three groups behind the spate of bombings. Islamic Jihad is the third.

Communique Attacks Israeli Actions

And for all the positive words in Arafat's communique, it was also filled with bitter accusations about Israel's "choking siege." It charged that Israel was trying to "squash our people's quest for freedom" with tanks, warplanes and artillery. And it appealed to Powell, as well as United Nations and other international officials, to survey the areas under Israeli occupation for evidence of the "massacres and blood baths plaguing our people."

Meanwhile, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said it was "not impressed" with the statement and rejected Arafat's words as duplicitous.

"We want deeds, not words," said Danny Ayalon, a senior foreign policy advisor to Sharon.

"They are sending the suicide attacker to Jerusalem, giving her instructions and financing. They cannot keep the strategy of terror and expect us to be impressed by condemnations," he said, referring to the young female bomber in Friday's attack.

Israel continued to defy U.S. pressure by moving into at least six additional Palestinian villages or towns in the West Bank on Saturday and arresting dozens of suspected extremists.

Israel withdrew from Dahariya, but the army announced that troops and tanks had rolled into the villages of Burkin and Arabe outside Jenin, Bir Nabala outside Ramallah and Beit Iba, El Baidan and Beit Wazan near Nablus. The military also remains entrenched in Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus and Bethlehem, the major West Bank cities, with no signs of an imminent pullout.

Israeli snipers apparently shot one of the approximately 140 Palestinians barricaded in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Speaking by telephone from inside the church, built on the site revered as Jesus' birthplace, Bethlehem Gov. Mohammed Madani issued an urgent call to the Israelis to allow in a medical team to save the dying man. But the Palestinian militia member, Hassan Nasman, died.

Madani said he noticed increased activity by Israeli forces outside the church, prompting fears that they might initiate a commando raid to free about 80 priests, monks and nuns inside.

The question of whether Powell would meet with Arafat was decided after what appeared to be a subtly choreographed sequence of events, according to Palestinian, Arab and U.S. officials. The diplomatic drama offered a microcosm of the complex challenges Powell faces--and the nuanced solutions they required.

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