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Deal Struck to End Israel's Siege of Arafat Compound

Mideast: The proposal, put forth by the U.S., calls for six men holed up at the site to serve time in a Palestinian prison. Bush says Arafat is now 'free to lead.'

April 29, 2002|REBECCA TROUNSON and T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

JERUSALEM — Israel and the Palestinians on Sunday accepted a U.S. proposal aimed at lifting the Israeli army's monthlong siege of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat inside his West Bank headquarters.

The deal, based on a proposal by President Bush, would release Arafat from weeks spent trapped on two floors of his shattered offices in Ramallah and defuse one of the most contentious issues dividing the two sides.

Palestinian officials said they expected the siege to be lifted as early as today.

At his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Bush praised the Israeli and Palestinian decisions as "important steps along the path to peace."

However, the president, who was originally reluctant to involve his administration in the Middle East conflict, said Arafat must act decisively "in word and in deed against terror directed at Israeli citizens."

"Chairman Arafat is now free to move around and free to lead," Bush said. "And we expect him to do so."

Despite the apparent breakthrough, Israeli tanks and troops invaded the divided West Bank city of Hebron early today. The incursion, which the army said was limited, was in response to Saturday's attack on the Jewish settlement of Adora, in which four Israelis were killed and seven wounded.

Palestinian areas of Hebron were under curfew early today as Israeli troops conducted house-to-house searches for militants and weapons, an army spokeswoman said.

Seven Palestinians were reported killed.

The U.S. proposal accepted Sunday came amid a flurry of developments, as the Cabinet of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also announced that it would bar a United Nations team from investigating Israel's recent assault on a West Bank refugee camp. A Cabinet minister said the government rejected the inquiry because it feared that the U.N. was "out to get us."

The mission, led by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, also includes former International Committee of the Red Cross chief Cornelio Sommaruga and Sadako Ogata, a former head of the U.N. refugee agency.

The U.S. proposal, approved overwhelmingly by the Sharon Cabinet, centers on a group of six men, wanted by Israel, who have been holed up with Arafat and about 100 others in the besieged headquarters. Under the terms accepted Sunday, the men would be allowed to serve their sentences in a Palestinian prison, under the control of American and British guards.

In exchange, Arafat would be allowed to travel freely in Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and perhaps even abroad, for the first time since December.

Until the proposal, which Bush made Saturday in telephone calls to Sharon, Israel had insisted that the Palestinians surrender the wanted men before it would agree to withdraw the tanks and troops that have encircled Arafat's offices since March 29. As part of a sweeping West Bank offensive, Israel had demanded that Arafat act forcefully to rein in militants who have targeted Israelis this year in a devastating series of suicide bombings and other attacks.

Five of the six men are wanted by the Israelis in connection with the assassination in October of Rehavam Zeevi, Israel's tourism minister. The sixth, Arafat aide Fuad Shubaki, is accused of involvement in a large shipment of arms for the Palestinian Authority, allegedly from Iran, that was intercepted by Israel on Jan. 3.

Gideon Meir, deputy director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said Israel had not given up on its demand that the men be extradited but had accepted U.S. and British assurances that they would remain in prison, albeit in Palestinian territory.

"In every agreement, there is compromise," Meir said. "At this point, this seemed like the right one to make."

Israeli officials said Sharon, who spoke with Bush several times Saturday and at least twice more Sunday, had accepted an invitation from the president to visit Washington next week.

After Sharon's Cabinet voted Sunday afternoon to accept the plan, the proposal was conveyed to Arafat in Ramallah by U.S. and British consular officials. A few hours later, Palestinian representatives announced that Arafat also had agreed to it.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said U.S. and British security experts were expected to arrive in the region today to settle the "technical details" of the transfer of the six men. When those are resolved, he said, the siege will be lifted, perhaps late today or Tuesday.

Meanwhile Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet voted to prevent the U.N. team from investigating allegations surrounding actions by the Israeli army during its recent eight-day occupation of the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. Palestinians have accused the army of killing hundreds of civilians during the assault on the camp, a militant stronghold that was the scene of the most bitter fighting of the Israeli offensive.

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