- The Washington Times - Monday, March 11, 2002

JERUSALEM Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, signaling some flexibility ahead of a mission to the region by Washington's Middle East envoy, said yesterday Israel would soon allow Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to travel freely in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Mr. Sharon made the announcement as Israelis continued their thrust into refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and buried some of the 13 persons killed in two Palestinian attacks staged late Saturday.
Five Palestinians and one Israeli were killed in clashes yesterday, making it one of the calmer days in the past two weeks. Among the dead were two Palestinian militants, a Palestinian teen-ager and an Israeli soldier.
But Israel sent ground forces into Qalqilya today as part of a land, sea and air offensive in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
About 50 tanks and armored troop carriers rumbled into the Palestinian-ruled town from three directions in the dead of night, cutting off the electrical supply before troops thrust as deep as a half-mile into the town.
Mr. Sharon, who had imposed a blockade on Mr. Arafat's Ramallah office since December, said the Palestinian leader had met a key Israeli demand by arresting a fourth man believed involved in the killing last October of Cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi.
"People have been arrested. I demanded their arrest and their imprisonment," Mr. Sharon told army veterans in a televised address. "I have said that after they are arrested, we shall let him out of there."
Mr. Sharon did not say when Mr. Arafat would be allowed freedom of movement, but officials in his office suggested it would probably happen before U.S. mediator Gen. Anthony Zinni arrives later this week. They said Israel would still restrict his travel abroad, requiring him to seek permission before leaving the West Bank and Gaza.
The decision marked Mr. Sharon's second concession in as many days. He announced Friday he was dropping a demand for seven days of calm as a precondition for negotiations with the Palestinians.
He also allowed his dovish foreign minister, the Labor Party's Shimon Peres, to meet top Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Korei late yesterday.
Mr. Sharon's flexibility is seen as an effort to pre-empt U.S. pressure and to show shellshocked Israelis he is using more than just force to end a spree of Palestinians attacks.
Mr. Sharon launched a fierce offensive against Palestinians 10 days ago, killing at least 100 people in raids primarily on refugee camps. He said yesterday the crackdown would continue despite U.S. diplomacy.
But a growing number of Israelis now believe military pressure alone will not end the Palestinian insurrection in the West Bank and Gaza that erupted 17 months ago and has so far claimed more than 1,300 lives.
As Mr. Sharon moves to placate the centrists, chiefly his Labor coalition partner, he risks aggravating hard-liners in his government. Underscoring his predicament, two Cabinet ministers said yesterday they would leave the government to protest Mr. Sharon's lack of resolve in the fight against Palestinians.
"He has coalition partners on both sides that are antsy," said Israeli political scientist Mark Heller of the Jafee Institute for Strategic Studies. "It's a precarious position to be in."
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Mr. Zinni would remain in the region to broker a cease-fire based on a U.S.-led report drafted last year by former Sen. George Mitchell.
"We have a vision, we have a plan to solve this crisis, but it begins with ending the violence," Mr. Powell told CBS' "Face the Nation" yesterday. "He's going to stay in the region and fight his way through this."
Mr. Zinni, a retired Marine Corps general, failed in two previous missions to broker a truce. During his first trip to the region in late November, violence surged to what then was an all-time high.
Since then, Israelis and Palestinians have intensified their conflict, which now looks more and more like a war.
With Vice President Richard B. Cheney expected to sound out Arab allies in the region next week for military measures against Iraq, Washington wants to keep a lid on Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
Early yesterday, Israel pounded Mr. Arafat's Gaza headquarters with 30 helicopter missiles until nothing was left of the seaside complex but shattered concrete and twisted metal.
The attack came in retaliation for a suicide bombing at a Jerusalem cafe that killed 11 Israelis and for a shooting in the seaside city of Netanya that claimed two more casualties, including a baby.
Israeli tanks now ring at least four Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank. Soldiers have rounded up hundreds of Palestinians, marching them through city streets with hands clasped over their heads like prisoners of war.
In yesterday's violence, Israelis blew up a Palestinian car in the West Bank, killing two persons. Police sources said the passengers were on their way to carry out an attack in Israel. Three other Palestinians were killed in scattered clashes, including a 13-year-old boy.
A Palestinian gunman also opened fire on a group of people in the Israeli city of Ashdod, wounding a 13-year-old Israeli. Police grabbed the assailant after his gun jammed, according to radio reports.
There was no immediate Palestinian reaction to Mr. Sharon's announcement regarding Mr. Arafat.
Lifting the siege could allow him to attend an Arab League summit in Beirut later this month, where leaders are set to discuss a Saudi proposal to trade peace and normalization with Israel for land it captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
Arab League foreign ministers who discussed the plan in Cairo yesterday said it could be Mr. Sharon's "last chance" for peace.
Mr. Arafat supports the idea, although Palestinians have asked Saudi Arabia to include specific references to such problems as the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Mr. Sharon, who for decades championed Israeli settlement of the West Bank and Gaza, has misgivings about the plan.


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