- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 9, 2002

JERUSALEM Israel began pulling its troops from two West Bank cities today in a decision made just hours after a sharp rebuke from President Bush.
Just before dawn, tanks began leaving Tulkarm and Qalqiliya, as troops evacuated the town's schools and buildings after a week's occupation.
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said yesterday the operations to wipe out the militant organization in the two towns were successful. Qalqiliya and Tulkarm, cities near Israel's border with the West Bank, have been centers for Palestinian suicide bombers.
The decision came only hours after a harsh, albeit indirect, exchange between Mr. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that underscored tensions between longtime allies over Israel's 11-day occupation of Palestinian territory.
Mr. Sharon began the day with a fiery speech to Israel's parliament, in which he vowed to "continue to operate, as speedily as possible, until the mission has been accomplished, until [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat's terrorist infrastructures are uprooted and until murderers holed up at various places are captured."
The Israeli leader's persistence in the face of international criticism baffled U.S. officials, including Mr. Bush, who two days earlier had called on Israel to withdraw.
"I meant what I said to the prime minister of Israel. I expect there to be withdrawal without delay," the president said during a visit to Knoxville, Tenn.
"And I also meant what I said to the Arab world, that in order for there to be peace, nations must stand up, leaders must stand up and condemn terrorism, terrorist activity.
"There is a mutual responsibility to achieve peace, and it's going to require leadership on both sides."
Apart from his public remarks, Mr. Bush sent his Middle East envoy, Gen. Anthony Zinni, to deliver the message personally to Mr. Sharon at his Jerusalem office.
The Israeli Defense Ministry said the army was ordered to "redeploy" around Qalqiliya and Tulkarm because it had completed its sweep for militants and weapons in the two cities.
There was no hint of a planned Israeli pullout from four other West Bank cities that were seized after a March 27 attack by a Palestinian suicide bomber that killed 27 persons in Israel.
Fighting continued yesterday in the Palestinian-ruled cities of Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah. In Bethlehem, Israeli troops exchanged fire with Palestinians in the Church of the Nativity Jesus' traditional birthplace where 200 gunmen and civilians remained holed up. Each side said the other fired first.
Israel has said it has killed about 200 Palestinians since the operation began.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, beginning an open-ended Mideast peace mission, drew fire from some regional leaders for delaying his arrival in Jerusalem until Thursday night or Friday.
Many believe that Mr. Sharon will not feel obliged to end the incursion until Mr. Powell arrives in Israel.
During a photo opportunity, King Mohammed VI of Morocco pointedly asked Mr. Powell, "Don't you think it was more important to go to Jerusalem first?"
Mr. Powell later told reporters he did not believe his decision to consult with moderate Arab leaders and European allies before heading to Jerusalem sent the wrong signal.
"It is important for me to prepare for such a trip to Jerusalem by consulting with Arab leaders, asking for their help and also by making sure that the entire international community rallies behind a vision as it rallies behind this effort," he said.
"And I think when those pieces are in place, I'm in a better position to go to Jerusalem as opposed to immediately going to Jerusalem without having done what I believe is appropriate preparation," Mr. Powell said.
International condemnation has been heaped upon the Israeli government since the military operation began 11 days ago.
Israeli has since occupied major Palestinian cities with troops, tanks and helicopter gunships, knocked down buildings, chewed up roads, and cut off water and electricity to tens of thousands of Palestinian homes.
The European Union has threatened to impose sanctions to force Israel to withdraw its troops.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan added to the condemnation yesterday, saying: "The whole world is demanding that Israel withdraw. I don't think the whole world, including the friends of the Israeli people and government, can be wrong."
It appeared last night that the limited Israeli withdrawal did little to assuage international criticism.
Mr. Powell, after a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah in Morocco, called the promised withdrawal "encouraging" but said it did not go far enough.
"Let us hope that this is not a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but the beginning of a pullback," Mr. Powell told reporters.
The crown prince yesterday told Mr. Powell that Israel's continued military operations were doing serious damage to the United States' standing among the world's Arabs, according to his foreign policy adviser, Adel al-Jubeir.
In Israel, pleas for a withdrawal seemed to be landing softly among hard-liners in the government, who view a spate of Palestinian suicide bombings during the just-completed Passover holiday as their September 11.
"There is absolutely no equivalence between those who send teen-age suicide bombers to kill and maim, and those who take self-defense actions and try to uproot the infrastructure of terrorism," Mr. Sharon said.
In his speech to the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, which was frequently interrupted by Israeli-Arab lawmakers, he singled out his old nemesis Mr. Arafat as the mastermind behind the uprising that has claimed more than 1,500 Israeli and Palestinian lives since September 2000.
"In the territories under his rule, Arafat has established a regime of terror, which nationally and officially trains terrorists and incites, finances, arms and sends them to perpetuate murderous operations across Israel," he said.
Mr. Sharon directly addressed the Palestinian people, reminding them that he has no plans to permanently reoccupy their land, but urging them to oust Mr. Arafat.
"If you want to seize a place of honor among the family of nations, you must eschew terrorism, the murder of children and the elderly, the terrible violence, the murderous hatred and incitement," he said. "Do not surrender to those elements among you who have brought you one disaster after another over the past 55 years, because those same forces they and not us will."


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