- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 2, 2002

JERUSALEM Israel is no longer committed to the creation of an independent Palestinian nation, especially if its leaders cannot make peace with Israel, Justice Minister Meir Shitreet said yesterday.

"We've lived 53 years without a Palestinian state, and we can go another 50 years," said a defiant Mr. Shitreet at a news briefing. "We were here before [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat, and we'll be here after him."

The minister spoke on the fourth day of Mr. Arafat's isolation in his Ramallah headquarters and hours before a suicide bomber blew up a car in west Jerusalem, wounding a policeman.

He defended Israel's invasion of Ramallah and new military actions in the Palestinian towns of Qalqilya, Tulkarm and Bethlehem, saying that violence is the only way to communicate with the Palestinian leader.

"Arafat only speaks one language, and we'll speak to him in a language he understands," said Mr. Shitreet, a member of Ariel Sharon's hawkish Likud party.

Speaking to reporters at a hastily established media center, the minister angrily rejected criticism, particularly from European capitals, of Israel's treatment of Mr. Arafat.

"We do not care whether he eats or drinks or sleeps," Mr. Shitreet said. "Would the United States keep [al Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden alive in a certain building? Do I have to be responsible for his safety?"

He noted that Mr. Arafat looked "relaxed" during recent television interviews.

Israeli officials are facing widespread criticism of their military buildup, the largest in two decades. Although U.S. officials have been publicly supportive, they joined a Norwegian-sponsored U.N. Security Council resolution on Saturday morning that demands that Israel withdraw from Ramallah.

In Washington yesterday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld condemned the wave of suicide bombings against Israeli targets and accused Iran, Iraq and Syria of "inspiring and financing a culture of political murder and suicide bombing."

"Murderers are not martyrs," Mr. Rumsfeld was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying. "Targeting civilians is immoral, whatever the excuse."

Referring to news reports that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is offering thousands of dollars to the families of suicide bombers, Mr. Rumsfeld said, "That is very actively trying to kill innocent men, women and children, and that's exactly what the Iraqis intend to be doing by doing that," he said.

As for Iran, there is "no question" that the Iranians "were deeply involved in trying to ship 50 tons of weapons to the Palestinians aboard the captured vessel Karine A, he said.

And, he added, there is "no question but that the Iranians work with the Syrians and send folks into Damascus and down to Beirut … and then into south Lebanon so that they can conduct terrorist attacks."

The United States is almost alone in its support of Israel, however.

An angry crowd tried to storm the Israeli Embassy in Egypt yesterday, and smaller demonstrations took place in other Arab cities. Synagogues were torched yesterday in France and Belgium.

The Israeli Defense Forces, meanwhile, have sealed off the borders of Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian territories. The government refused to allow aid workers, peace activists or reporters into the besieged city yesterday and said that any foreigners found in the area would be arrested.

Foreign journalists have streamed into Jerusalem since a suicide bomber killed 21 persons at the start of the Passover holiday on Wednesday. By yesterday afternoon, 720 visiting correspondents had been accredited by the Foreign Ministry, which has scheduled twice daily briefings indefinitely.

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