- The Washington Times - Friday, October 26, 2001

Israel, bowing to U.S. pressure, will pull its forces out of recently seized West Bank cities late tomorrow or Sunday.

The Israeli Cabinet met last night and decided on the withdrawal after assurances from the Palestinians that their towns would not be used as staging areas for attacks on Israel, an Israeli diplomatic source said last night.

The Palestinian cities were seized by Israeli forces after an Israeli Cabinet minister was assassinated on Oct. 17.

Israeli and Palestinian security officials are to meet to work out the details of the Israeli withdrawal, which would begin after the close of the Jewish Sabbath tomorrow.

It is still not clear whether agreement will be reached for a withdrawal from all of the Palestinian cities.

Yesterday, Israel gave the first solid clue that defiance of U.S. pullout calls was ending. It pulled out of the West Bank village of Beit Rima and reported that it captured suspects in the slaying of its Cabinet minister last week.

Thirty-six Palestinians have died, including four yesterday, since the Israeli incursion into Palestinian-controlled territory after last week's assassination of Israel's tourism minister.

President Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, welcomed the move, reporting that "the president believes that Israel's partial pullout is a positive step," referring to Beit Rima.

"The president continues to urge Israel to lower tensions, withdraw its forces from all Palestinian-controlled areas and to exercise restraint," said Mr. Fleischer.

But Israeli armor and troops remained in areas of six West Bank cities during the day yesterday, apparently feigning a shrugging-off of calls by Mr. Bush for a complete withdrawal. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who spoke on Capitol Hill yesterday, censured Israel for a second straight day, sparking tough questions from members of Congress.

Several lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said the Bush administration was attacking Israel for going after terrorists on its border even as the United States leads a war against terrorism in Afghanistan.

"I am worried about sending a message that says when [Israeli] citizens are murdered, they can't do what the United States is now doing, pursuing the terrorists wherever they are, by whatever means possible," said Sen. Gordon H. Smith, Oregon Republican.

Mr. Powell said he understood the security pressures on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but added Israel eventually would have to return to the negotiating table with the Palestinians.

"We also have to keep in mind that ultimate security will come only when we can get back to a process of peace," said Mr. Powell.

Fighting between Israeli and Palestinian forces broke out in those six West Bank cities, adding more Palestinians to the death toll since Israel penetrated the areas under Palestinian control after the slaying of hawkish Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.

The only clue of what would come out of the Cabinet meeting was the fact that Mr. Sharon called the Cabinet into session.

Instead, Israeli Cabinet Minister Dan Meridor said yesterday in Washington it is a serious mistake to criticize Israeli efforts to capture or punish terrorists.

Five Palestinian policemen were killed Wednesday in Beit Rima, and Israel arrested 11 others, two suspected of links to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which took credit for the assassination. Villagers said three others who were taken to an Israeli hospital also died, but hospital officials said the three were wounded.

The Palestinian Cabinet called the Israeli sweep an "ugly massacre" and declared yesterday a day of mourning. Earlier, the Palestinian Authority had charged Israel already had in custody the assassination suspects before it mounted it military attacks.

Israel said it had arrested two members of the four-man cell that carried out the assassination before their attack on Beit Rima, but that the reputed triggerman Hamdi Koraan was still at large.

An Israeli government statement said security forces have arrested 42 Palestinians "directly connected with terrorist activity" since the assassination and 36 Palestinians have been killed, including numerous civilians. Overall, in more than a year of fighting, 721 persons have been killed on the Palestinian side and 186 on the Israeli side.

In New York yesterday, the U.N. Security Council met last night to discuss the situation in the Middle East. The United States and France had both floated draft presidential statements aimed at easing tensions on the ground, in response to demands from Council members and the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Washington has maintained that the parties themselves should solve the problems in the Middle East, and that Council involvement could only inflame tensions.

The Council meeting indicated how frustrated the international community, including the United States, is with the escalation.

However, if the resolution includes a call for international observers, the United States will most likely oppose it.

Mr. Meridor, a minister without portfolio in Mr. Sharon's government dealing with strategic issues, met with senior State Department officials during his visit this week to Washington and said the U.S.-Israel relationship remains "basically very solid."

He said Israel understands the "need to be low key" while the United States seeks Arab and other Muslim nations to back the war on terrrorism and American bombing of Afghanistan, which shelters accused terrorist Osama bin Laden. But such understanding "needs to be mutual we, too, are at war."

• David R. Sands and Betsey Pisik contributed to this report.

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