- The Washington Times - Monday, April 15, 2002

JERUSALEM Israeli and Palestinian leaders rebuffed U.S. efforts to calm the Middle East during a full day of shuttle diplomacy yesterday by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
During a three-hour meeting at his shattered headquarters in Ramallah, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat harangued Mr. Powell about Israeli military action and told him he would not discuss a cease-fire until Israeli forces completely end their occupation of West Bank towns and villages, officials said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the secretary at an evening meeting that he will not yet withdraw. He proposed to meet with regional Arab leaders, but only if Mr. Arafat was not present.
Mr. Powell travels today to Lebanon and Syria to dissuade leaders there from allowing Hezbollah gunmen to open a new front on Israel's northern border. He is expected to return to Israel for further talks.
"We will continue discussions on both sides," a State Department official said.
Mr. Powell's delegation passed through a landscape blighted by 17 days of warfare to reach Mr. Arafat's office in Ramallah, where the Palestinian chairman is confined to two rooms in a severely damaged complex.
Outside the building, Israeli tanks pulled back just far enough for Mr. Powell's motorcade of armored-plated sport utility vehicles to pass through, shielded by U.S. security personnel with submachine guns. Armed Israeli soldiers watched closely.
The 72-year-old Palestinian leader made clear to Mr. Powell that his priority is the withdrawal of Israeli troops not the cessation of violence according to diplomats on both sides of the table.
Mr. Powell, who described the meeting as "useful and constructive" diplomatic speak for "nothing much accomplished" told Mr. Arafat that Palestinian suicide bombings "have to stop, that the pattern of bombing, the continuation, is a major barrier to moving forward," said a senior State Department official.
U.S. officials said Mr. Arafat reaffirmed his condemnation of violence against Israeli and Palestinian civilians. The statement was issued Saturday after an Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade bomber killed six and wounded scores on a crowded Jerusalem street the day before.
But Mohammed Dahlan, Mr. Arafat's security chief in the Gaza Strip, told The Associated Press: "The Palestinian position was clear that there would be no talks about political or security coordination without Israeli withdrawal."
The secretary's meeting with Mr. Sharon took place yesterday evening at a hotel in Tel Aviv. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher later declared that Mr. Powell had "a very good and thorough discussion with Prime Minister Sharon" that included a plea to put an "end to the violence and moving forward on the political issues."
Mr. Boucher added: "We know that Israel continues to withdraw. The secretary pressed for its completion."
Mr. Sharon renewed a previously stated proposal for an international peace conference including the leaders of Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria but not Mr. Arafat, an aide to the prime minister said. A senior U.S. official said the idea was discussed "as part of a way to move forward politically" but that more talks were needed.
Mr. Powell's efforts were made against a backdrop of contrasting statements about what happened in the Jenin refugee camp, where Israeli troops have clashed with Palestinian fighters in the fiercest fighting of Israel's 17-day-old incursion. An undetermined number of Palestinians were killed, and their corpses are strewn through the rubble of the camp. Palestinians put the toll in the "hundreds," the Israelis in the "dozens."
Mr. Powell expressed his concern about reports coming out of the camp, which remains closed to reporters, in meetings with both leaders yesterday, according to all the parties.
The Israeli High Court yesterday ordered the army not to bury Jenin corpses in mass graves on Israeli land. Human rights groups and some members of the Israeli Knesset had feared that would be done, hiding any evidence of atrocities, if any. The court ordered the army to include workers from the International Red Cross in teams searching for the bodies.
Israel's March 29 incursion into the West Bank, prompted by a bombing that killed more than two dozen people gathered for a Seder, the traditional dinner marking the observance of the Jewish holiday of Passover, has spurred harsh criticism of Israel from nations and organizations around the world.
Goaded by the Vatican and many governments, the army yesterday proposed ending a tense, 2-week-old standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, on the site where, many Christians believe, Christ was born, by offering the gunmen sheltering within the choice of a life in exile or a military trial.
The mayor of Bethlehem, Mohammed al-Madani, refused to accept the deal, saying that any solution is up to Mr. Arafat.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah gunmen, supported by Syria and Iran, have been firing into Israel from across the Lebanese border. The bombing and artillery have escalated, and many are concerned that will ignite a full-scale war similar to the one that led to Israel's occupation of a security zone in southern Lebanon for more than two decades.
Mr. Powell had been expected to fly home tomorrow, but preparations are being made for him to stay longer.

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