- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 17, 2002

JERUSALEM Israel said yesterday it was open to the possibility of sitting down with top Palestinian leaders and negotiating a truce to end nearly 18 months of fighting.
But Israel backtracked from an earlier statement, claiming that at a meeting today Israel and the Palestinians would declare a cease-fire. U.S. and Palestinian officials said such a statement was premature.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office said that no such meeting has been arranged. A second statement blamed the media for the mix-up, saying reports had quoted an earlier announcement that U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni would chair a meeting today, "the goal of which will be to bring about a declaration by both sides on a cease-fire."
Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian security chief in Gaza, told Israel TV that the Palestinians would not meet the Israelis unless Israel first pulls out of Palestinian areas and also agrees to political talks, not just truce discussions.
The U.S. Embassy said Gen. Zinni had discussed "many ideas and proposals … but no decisions have been taken on the next steps."
Mr. Sharon earlier dropped preconditions for a truce, including seven days of absolute quiet. After a meeting last night at his desert ranch with Gen. Zinni, Mr. Sharon's office issued a statement saying a cease-fire was in the works.
Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said in a statement that "no decision has been made on holding a meeting" today in order to negotiate a cease-fire.
But Mr. Sharon "is committed to a cease-fire and will do everything possible to make a cease-fire come about," Mr. Gissin said.
If a cease-fire is reached, they would immediately move to implement a U.S. truce plan worked out last year by CIA Director George J. Tenet, Mr. Sharon's office said.
Israel has given assurances it will meet a key Palestinian demand and withdraw its army from the remaining Palestinian areas where troops are operating, Israeli officials said.
Repeated efforts to arrange a cease-fire have failed, and this month has seen the worst violence since the bloodshed began in September 2000.
The recent Israeli incursions into Palestinian cities and refugee camps have drawn sharp international criticism, with the United States, Israel's strongest ally, among those urging a withdrawal.
By proposing a cease-fire, Mr. Sharon may be seeking to put the pressure on the Palestinians to take action to halt attacks on Israelis. The U.S. truce plan calls on the Palestinians to rein in militants and collect their weapons a difficult and politically costly course for the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has been reluctant to do that at a time when Israel has been carrying out attacks against Palestinian targets, including Mr. Arafat's own offices. Palestinian officials have said the attacks on their security apparatus have weakened their ability and motivation to act against radical groups.
The U.S. plan also says the Israelis must pull back their forces to where they were before the fighting began. That would involve the dismantling of many military checkpoints and roadblocks in Palestinian areas.
Gen. Zinni, whose two past truce missions failed due to persistent violence, said Friday that the first-round of meetings with the two sides had been "extremely positive." Also, Israel pulled its army out of three Palestinian towns on Friday, improving the atmosphere a bit.
However, many had expected Gen. Zinni to engage in protracted negotiations before there was any likelihood of a cease-fire.
Gen. Zinni met Mr. Arafat in Ramallah yesterday, and then held five hours of talks with the Palestinian leader's top aides. Afterward, Gen. Zinni saw Mr. Sharon at his ranch.
Yesterday was mostly quiet, though Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian taxi driver traveling through the West Bank city of Hebron in an area under curfew, Palestinian officials and witnesses said. The army said it was unaware of the incident.
Elsewhere, Israel's army said it shot and hit at a "cell of terrorists" near a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians had no immediate comment, while Israeli radio stations said three Palestinians were killed.
In Nablus, in the West Bank, Palestinian militiamen executed two Palestinians convicted of collaborating with Israel. The two men had already been sentenced to death in a Palestinian security court, but escaped from prison a week ago after Israeli shelling. It was the third instance this week in which Palestinian militiamen killed suspected or convicted collaborators.
In March alone, 192 persons have been killed on the Palestinian side and 62 persons on the Israeli side. March also saw the largest Israeli military operation since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, with Israel deploying 20,000 troops in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in response to a string of Palestinian bombings and shootings.
Israel pulled out of Ramallah and two other Palestinian towns in the West Bank on Friday but remained encamped in Bethlehem and Beit Jalla, which are just south of Jerusalem.
Some Israelis have questioned whether the Israeli incursions were effective in rooting out militants, many of whom managed to escape.
But Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, the chief of staff of Israel's army, said the actions have helped prevent additional suicide bombing attacks.
"There could have been a lot more suicide attacks if the army hadn't carried out this broad operation," Gen. Mofaz told Israeli television.
Meanwhile, for a second straight day, thousands of Arabs took to the streets across the Middle East yesterday to burn Israeli and American flags and express anger over the rising Palestinian death toll.
Some 5,000 protesters demonstrated in Amman, Jordan, some waving pictures of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and calling on him to attack Israel as he did with missiles during the 1991 Gulf war. They also appealed to Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
"Saddam, please strike Tel Aviv," and "bin Laden, you are dear to us, bomb Tel Aviv," the protesters chanted before a squad of 200 police officers who kept them from a U.N. building.
In Cairo, 4,000 Egyptian students chanted anti-Israeli slogans and burned Israeli and American flags.

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