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THE MIDDLE EAST

Powell, at Trip's End, Cites Gains

April 17, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT and MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

JERUSALEM — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Tuesday that he will wrap up his Mideast peace mission today after making some "progress" toward a peace plan that would have components addressing the key security, political and humanitarian problems in the region.

Powell's proposal will include holding an international peace conference to spur momentum toward resolving the broader Palestinian-Israeli disputes, according to Israeli, Arab and U.S. officials.

But with many details still to be worked out, the initiatives are expected to be modest, leaving the U.S.-orchestrated process susceptible to setbacks or reversals, the officials said.

"We are making progress, and I look forward to furthering that progress over the next 24 hours," Powell told reporters Tuesday.

The most controversial issue is security, including bringing an end to the nearly 3-week-old Israeli incursion in the West Bank and the nearly 19-month-long Palestinian uprising.

Powell conceded Tuesday that he probably will not be able to negotiate an immediate cease-fire, the goal when he began his diplomatic rescue mission more than a week ago. He also probably will leave the region without getting the situation back to where it was when Israel invaded Palestinian territory March 29.

The U.S. goal is instead to orchestrate a sequence of steps whereby the Palestinians would pledge to take measures to end suicide bombings and other attacks while the Israelis would withdraw from recently occupied areas.

But this plan already faces major hurdles. While Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has pledged to pull out of most Palestinian cities and towns within a week, he is balking at withdrawing from Bethlehem and Ramallah. Israeli troops are engaged in a standoff with Palestinian gunmen in the former and have besieged the headquarters of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in the latter.

Sharon said Israel will remain in both cities until Palestinian militiamen suspected of killing an Israeli Cabinet minister last fall, of organizing arms shipments from Iran and of other acts are handed over to Israel or, in some cases, go into exile.

"The Palestinian Authority is hoping that in this case, Israel will bend in light of the pressure and give up," the prime minister said. "This will not happen."

Powell to Meet Arafat and Hold Talks in Egypt

Israel also has informed Powell that it will reserve the right to conduct raids into West Bank areas if it has information about security threats. And it intends to carry out a previously announced plan to create three buffer zones between Palestinian areas and Israel. Both measures are unacceptable to the Palestinians.

Powell was scheduled to hold final talks with Arafat at the Palestinian leader's compound in Ramallah today, fly to Cairo for a meeting with Egyptian and Jordanian officials and then return home.

Israeli troops Tuesday briefly reentered the northern town of Tulkarm and villages around the cities of Nablus and Ramallah in what were described as search-and-arrest missions. Palestinians said five people were shot by Israeli troops in Tulkarm and five militants were arrested. Israel also moved into another West Bank town and three villages around Jerusalem, partly due to fears of new violence timed for today's celebration of Israel's independence day.

Israel also reopened Ketziot, a notorious detention center in the southern Negev desert, to hold thousands of Palestinians arrested during the current military campaign. More than 4,000 prisoners were being held at a center near Ramallah in severely overcrowded conditions, an Israeli spokesman said.

Ketziot was built during the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli military rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, carried out from 1987 to 1993. The army could not say how many prisoners would be held in Ketziot this time around. Human rights organizations in the 1980s said prisoners lived in harsh conditions in tents where they were exposed to searing heat by day and freezing cold at night.

On the political front, the Bush administration hopes to organize an international conference that would make progress on the broader political issues of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Holding such a gathering would address a key Palestinian and Arab condition for any commitment to ending hostilities with Israel, according to Israeli and U.S. sources.

The agenda is the first major source of potential dispute. Powell hopes to make the recent Arab League initiative--offering Israel full recognition by the Arab world in exchange for withdrawal from areas occupied in the 1967 Middle East War--a key topic of discussion.

Sharon, who met with Powell for an hour Tuesday, said he believes a regional conference probably would be convened in June, possibly in the United States. But in an interview with Channel 10, he declared that "Israel cannot withdraw to the '67 borders. Do you imagine Israel doing this?"

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