- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 12, 2002

JERUSALEM Hard-liners in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government are threatening to pull out of the coalition in protest of his decision to end Yasser Arafat's house arrest and drop his demand for seven days of peace before any peace talks with the Palestinian leader.
Both concessions were seen as prompted by pressure from the United States, which is sending special envoy Anthony Zinni to the region this week to try to halt the worst exchange of bloodshed since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000. More than 120 Palestinians and 50 Israelis have been killed since March 1.
Israeli troops conducted major raids in the West Bank yesterday. Israeli tanks and troops stormed into a Gaza Strip refugee camp and waged a fierce gunbattle that killed at least 17 Palestinians. In all the incursions, Israel killed at least 23 Palestinians and rounded up more than 1,000 people for interrogation. Hundreds of detainees were handcuffed and blindfolded in the search for suspects in terror attacks.
Mr. Sharon announced late Sunday that Mr. Arafat would be free to travel between the West Bank and Gaza after having been confined to his offices in the West Bank city of Ramallah for four months. He must still seek permission to travel abroad, and it is not clear whether he will be allowed to attend an Arab League summit in Beirut at the end of this month.
Despite the order, Mr. Arafat remained yesterday in his Ramallah compound, where he met with Ron Schlicher, the American consul-general in Jerusalem. Aides said he also spoke by telephone to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
On Friday, Mr. Sharon had stunned his supporters by abandoning his insistence on a total cessation of violence before any peace talks with the Palestinians a condition he had set down so as not to be seen as negotiating under fire.
Leaders of the most extreme faction in Mr. Sharon's unity government, the National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu bloc, responded to the latest decision by declaring their intention to pull out of the coalition.
Leaders of other hard-line parties also expressed uneasiness about what they see as a shift to the left. A crowd of protesters estimated at 50,000 people gathered yesterday to demand tougher military action against the Palestinians.
Mr. Sharon's dilemma is to make concessions without them being seen as bowing to the pressures created by the wave of suicide bombings and other terror acts shaking the country in recent weeks.
He said Sunday he was easing restrictions on Mr. Arafat because his Palestinian Authority had met a demand for the arrest of all the suspects in the assassination in October of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi. The last person on Israel's wanted list was arrested last week by Palestinian security officials.
Some Israeli politicians now say that Mr. Sharon should demand the killers' extradition to Israel before giving Mr. Arafat freedom to travel. But the prime minister said that was not part of his original demand.
"I said that after their arrest we shall let him out of there. You have to meet your commitments."
The decision to drop the demand for seven days of complete peace gives Gen. Zinni, who is due in Israel on Thursday, the freedom to begin substantive negotiations on a cease-fire immediately. The Israeli condition had frustrated his two previous missions to the region.
"I've come to the conclusion that, given the extent of terror acts and Israel's counterterror activities, there is no possibility of achieving absolute quiet," Mr. Sharon said.
"A cease-fire is a central objective, and I have therefore notified the U.S. that we are prepared to enter negotiations immediately upon Gen. Zinni's arrival."
Mr. Sharon has balanced his political concessions by ordering the army to step up massive and unprecedented sweeps of Palestinian refugee camps and of towns that have become havens for Palestinian militants.
Troops and armored vehicles stormed into the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem before dawn yesterday and ordered all males between the ages of 15 and 45 to surrender. The army said about 500 men were stripped to their undershirts, handcuffed and blindfolded.
Another 600 men were detained in a schoolyard in the town of Qalqilya, according to soldiers and residents. Israel says such raids have led to the discovery of numerous weapons and bomb-making laboratories.
U.S. pressure was clearly a factor in Mr. Sharon's political concessions.
Statements on Sunday by Mr. Powell showed that the Bush administration, which has largely kept hands off since Gen. Zinni's last failed mission in December, was returning with a carefully thought-out game plan.
Mr. Powell said Gen. Zinni would be accompanied by a small number of American monitors "maybe it will grow over time" who would observe steps taken by both sides to end the violence.
Israel has in the past opposed international observers being posted in the region, but Mr. Powell said that both Israel and the Palestinians were now "receptive." This could be seen as another concession by Mr. Sharon.
Despite the previous failures, Mr. Powell said, Gen. Zinni this time "is going to stay in the region and fight his way through this."
The secretary of state suggested that Mr. Sharon "should consider" letting Mr. Arafat attend the Arab League summit in Beirut in two weeks. Arab leaders are expected to discuss there the recent Saudi peace proposal.

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