- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 19, 2002

JERUSALEM In another sign that the Israelis and Palestinians were edging closer to a cease-fire, Israeli troops pulled out of Bethlehem in the West Bank overnight, hours after Vice President Richard B. Cheney arrived in the Jewish state.
The withdrawal followed a meeting of security officials from both sides brokered by U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni, who has been shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah since last week trying to mediate an end to 18 months of violence.
Israeli officials said Palestinian security chiefs had agreed to take control of areas that troops evacuate and make sure militants are not using them as staging grounds for attacks on the Jewish state.
Israeli and Palestinian officials said the withdrawal from Bethlehem and other areas would pave the way for high-level political talks today and possibly a cease-fire announcement.
"If things go well, I expect there will be a good possibility that a cease-fire will be declared," Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told reporters.
Witnesses said they saw Israeli tanks leave Bethlehem just after midnight along the main road to Jerusalem. Soldiers who had taken up positions in homes and schools also pulled out.
Mr. Cheney, fresh from a tour of Arab capitals, where he sought support for measures against Iraq, joined the diplomatic flurry almost as soon as his plane touched down. He rode from the airport to Jerusalem with Gen. Zinni and then held talks with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
It wasn't immediately clear if Mr. Cheney, who is due to leave for Turkey today, would also be meeting Palestinian officials. He had not intended to hold talks with leader Yasser Arafat, a decision that Palestinians saw as a snub. But at least one U.S. official in Jerusalem said a Cheney-Arafat meeting still might be arranged.
"I wonder how Cheney can say he's pursuing peace between the Palestinians and Israelis by meeting the leader of one side and not the other," senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
Though Mr. Cheney had hoped to focus on Iraq during his Middle East tour, Arab leaders repeatedly raised the matter of violence in the West Bank and Gaza, pressuring Washington to rein in Mr. Sharon.
Also, in an angry letter to Mr. Sharon, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan accused Israel of failing to protect civilians in an escalating military campaign that he said had come to resemble conventional war.
In the March 12 letter, obtained yesterday by the Associated Press, Mr. Annan said, "hundreds of innocent non-combatant civilians men, women and children have been injured or killed, and many buildings and homes have been damaged or destroyed," adding that the fighting "has come to resemble all-out conventional warfare."
He also urged Palestinians to halt "morally repugnant" acts of terror and suicide bombings.
A steady pulse of low-level violence since September 2000 exploded in recent weeks, making March the bloodiest month Israelis and Palestinians have known in decades.
Israel, responding to a spate of Palestinian bombings and shootings, reinvaded large parts of the West Bank and Gaza handed over to Palestinians during peacemaking years in the past decade.
The level of violence has dropped in recent days, as mediation took center stage.
Troops fatally shot one Palestinian near the settlement Netzarim in the Gaza Strip. Palestinians fired two rockets at Israel, but no one was wounded.
After the withdrawal from Bethlehem, Palestinians said Israeli troops still surround some West Bank cities and hold about 20 percent of the Gaza Strip that should be under Palestinian control.
Palestinians had pressed in yesterday's security meeting for a full Israeli withdrawal to positions it held before the outbreak of violence 18 months ago.
Israelis agreed to evacuate only those areas seized in the recent offensive.
An American official involved in the talks said Gen. Zinni sided with Israel on the issue and Palestinians agreed that a cease-fire would follow a limited Israeli pullback.
That position and Mr. Cheney's reluctance to meet Mr. Arafat reinforced among Palestinians what they have long perceived to be a U.S. bias toward Israel.
But Mr. Cheney, in remarks made at a welcoming ceremony in Israel, said both Israelis and Palestinians needed to amend their policies.
"The Israeli people must have confidence that their existence as a Jewish state living within secure borders is accepted by all, first and foremost by Israel's neighbors in the region," Mr. Cheney said.
"For that reason, we continue to call upon Chairman Arafat to live up to his commitment, to renounce once and for all the use of violence as a political weapon and to exert a 100 percent effort to stamp out terrorism.
"In that same spirit, I will be talking to Prime Minister Sharon about the steps that Israel can take to alleviate the devastating economic hardship being experienced by innocent Palestinian men, women and children," he said.
The fighting here and Israeli blockades imposed on the West Bank and Gaza have devastated the Palestinian economy and made nearly 40 percent of the work force unemployed.
Gen. Zinni, who failed twice in the past four months to bring about a cessation of violence, issued a statement saying yesterday's talks were "professional, serious and constructive."
He said they focused on ways to implement a cease-fire agenda hammered out by CIA Director George J. Tenet in meetings here in June.
The plan begins with a simple truce but is followed by wider measures, including a broad Israeli pullback to positions held before the start of fighting and a Palestinian crackdown on militant groups.
The Tenet plan is supposed give way to full peace negotiations and a freeze of Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and Gaza.
At least 1,074 Palestinians and 345 Israelis have been killed since the outset of the Palestinian uprising.


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