JERUSALEM Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon each took unusual steps yesterday: The Palestinian leader pledged to stamp out Palestinian “terrorist groups,” while the Israeli leader announced he would continue cease-fire talks he began last week with senior Palestinians.
In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Mr. Arafat employed some of the strongest language he had ever used to denounce Palestinian militants who carried out bombings or shootings against Israeli civilians.
“These groups do not represent the Palestinian people or their legitimate aspirations for freedom,” Mr. Arafat wrote. “They are terrorist organizations, and I am determined to put an end to their activities.”
Mr. Sharon, who met on Wednesday with senior Palestinian leaders for the first time since becoming Israel’s prime minister last year, said he would hold more cease-fire talks when he returned from a meeting this week with President Bush.
“I decided to invite them in order to explain to them what they need to do” to revive peace talks, Mr. Sharon told Israeli television. “At the same time, I was interested to hear what their requests were.”
Mr. Arafat and Mr. Sharon, bitter enemies for decades, routinely have exchanged harsh accusations throughout the Middle East conflict. Their toned-down rhetoric offered a glimmer of hope that the two sides were serious about ending 16 months of fighting.
But some critics interpreted the moves largely as public relations efforts by a pair of leaders facing mounting difficulties.
Israel has confined Mr. Arafat to the West Bank town of Ramallah and the United States has demanded that the Palestinian leader do more to crack down on militants.
“I’m pleased [that Mr. Arafat] condemns terrorism, and that’s good. Now what we need is action against terrorism,” Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Mr. Arafat made several public statements condemning Palestinian violence against Israel in recent weeks, but yesterday’s remarks were his toughest yet.
At the World Economic Forum in New York, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres welcomed Mr. Arafat’s article, saying it marked the first time he indicated “that he is ready to discuss” key issues. But Israel has dismissed Mr. Arafat’s efforts to rein in the Palestinian militant groups as superficial at best.
“Arafat condemns terror in English, but he still calls for jihad [holy war] in Arabic,” said Sharon adviser Dore Gold, referring to Mr. Arafat’s recent speeches to his supporters.
Mr. Bush has taken an increasingly tough line with Mr. Arafat, particularly in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks in the United States. The Bush administration has been considering cutting off contacts with Mr. Arafat, U.S. officials have said.
Mr. Arafat did not cite any “terrorist groups” by name, and several recent shootings and a bomb attack were carried out by the Al Aqsa Brigades, part of Mr. Arafat’s Fatah movement. Most of the suicide bombings that killed dozens of Israelis were carried out by the groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Early today, Israeli helicopters fired missiles at a suspected Palestinian mortar-bomb factory in the Gaza Strip, setting it ablaze.
“In response to the firing of mortar bombs by Palestinians in the past few days, the Israel Defense Forces targeted a metal workshop in Jabalya, in the northern Gaza Strip,” an army announcement said.
Israeli military sources said mortar bombs were made at the facility, which was attacked by air. The army reported Palestinians had fired two mortar bombs yesterday at a Jewish settlement, causing no injuries or damage.