- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

JERUSALEM Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pledged yesterday to set up a buffer zone in the West Bank to block Palestinian suicide bombers from entering Israel.
The announcement was widely interpreted as the first step toward unilateral separation by Israel from a future Palestinian state, a strategy opposed by hard-liners in Mr. Sharon's coalition government who fear that Jewish settlers would be stranded on the wrong side of the fence.
Mr. Sharon spelled out the decision in a nationally televised address as Israeli airstrikes and retaliatory raids pounded the West Bank and Gaza Strip for the third consecutive day.
Nine Palestinians died in yesterday's violence, raising the death toll on both sides to 49 since Monday.
Hours before Mr. Sharon spoke, Palestinian security officials arrested three men believed responsible for the killing of an Israeli Cabinet minister in October.
Israel had made their incarceration a condition for allowing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to leave his office in Ramallah in the West Bank, where he has been under house arrest for two months.
Mr. Sharon said his Cabinet would consider its next move in light of the arrests, but he added that Mr. Arafat must meet other demands.
He said top Cabinet ministers made the decision to begin setting up a buffer zone earlier this week.
"In order to enhance the security of the citizens of Israel, and for the purpose of achieving a security separation, we decided … to immediately begin marking buffer zones and placing barriers along them," said Mr. Sharon.
It was the first time since capturing the area in 1967 that Israel moved to erect a partition in the West Bank.
Though Mr. Sharon was clearly not talking about drawing a political boundary or withdrawing troops from the West Bank, some analysts viewed the announcement as the first step toward a unilateral separation.
Mr. Sharon refused to say where the line would be drawn.
His announcement drew swift condemnation from Jewish settlers in the West Bank, whose homes could end up on the other side of a fence.
Their access to Israel would not be hampered because most settlers travel from their homes to the Jewish state on roads that bypass Palestinian population centers.
But erecting a partition would have symbolic significance, suggesting that the conservative Mr. Sharon was willing to part with areas that most settlers believe are indivisible pieces of Israel.
"No fence can foil the terror infrastructure, and no buffer zone can dismantle Arafat's terrorists," Jewish settlers council spokesman Yehoshua Mor-Yossef said in a statement.
"The real answer to terror depends on dismantling the Palestinian Authority and terrorist infrastructures," the spokesman said.
Palestinians said the plan would put swaths of Palestinian-ruled territory bordering the Jewish state back under Israeli military control.
"If separation is intended to stop suicidal missions, it has failed. If it's intended to stop trade and communication between the two peoples, it has succeeded to the misery of both," Palestinian Cabinet member Nabil Shaath said after Mr. Sharon's address.
The idea of unilateral separation from Palestinians has gained popularity among Israelis since a peace summit at Camp David collapsed in July 2000 and fighting erupted two months later.
The head of Shabak, Israel's domestic security agency, said last week that building a fence in parts of the West Bank would bolster Israel's security.
Other security officials advocating a partition point out that the suicide bombers who blew themselves up in Israel all came from the West Bank and none from the Gaza Strip, which is already fenced off.
But a fence would not stop Palestinians from targeting nearly 200,000 settlers in the West Bank and a horde of soldiers stationed there to protect them.
A Palestinian attack that killed six soldiers at a checkpoint near Ramallah on Tuesday touched off the latest Israeli retaliation.
Yesterday's assault began with tank raids on parts of Gaza. Six Palestinians were killed and 40 were wounded in clashes in Rafah at the southern corner of the Gaza Strip. Soldiers who forayed into Gaza City blew up the Voice of Palestine radio and television headquarters.
In the West Bank, Israeli troops fatally shot three Palestinians in separate incidents throughout the day. The clashes were punctuated by helicopter missile strikes, one of which slammed into Mr. Arafat's compound in Ramallah.
"This is an attempt to make the Palestinian people and its leadership kneel, but they don't know that this people and their leadership are a mighty people," Mr. Arafat told reporters.
The Palestinian leader repeated his commitment to a cease-fire he declared Dec. 16. That truce announcement set off 24 days of calm, the longest-running quiet spell since fighting erupted in September 2000. Mr. Sharon described it at the time as a trick and demanded that Mr. Arafat dismantle armed groups.
Though the Palestinian leader has yet to do that, his security agents broke into an apartment in Nablus early yesterday and arrested three top militants from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
Palestinian and Israeli officials confirmed the three were involved in the killing four months ago of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi. Mr. Arafat said the men would be tried in a Palestinian court.
The PFLP, in a statement issued after the raid in Nablus, described their arrest as a "heinous crime." A top member of the group said Mr. Arafat had driven another nail in the coffin of his administration by ordering them confined.
Mr. Arafat's occasional crackdowns on armed groups, including the Islamic militant group Hamas, have drawn broad popular resentment.
Mr. Sharon, asked yesterday if he was now ready to let Mr. Arafat leave Ramallah, said the Palestinian leader must also arrest officials who tried to smuggle weapons bought from Iran.
Mr. Sharon said in his address that he would continue meeting high-ranking Palestinian officials in a bid to achieve a cease-fire but would not engage in peace talks so long as violence continued.

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