- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 12, 2002

From combined dispatches
JERUSALEM Israel put off its action against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip and pulled out of a West Bank town yesterday, leaving Palestinian-run territories free of Israeli troops for the first time in six weeks.
Palestinian officials expressed little relief, however. Israeli tanks continued to sit on the border with Gaza, and most reservists called up in recent days had not been sent home.
"Postponed doesn't mean canceled," said Saeb Erekat, a senior official in the Palestinian Authority.
The Israeli decision to hold off in Gaza was welcomed in Egypt, where Presidents Bashar Assad of Syria and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt met yesterday with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik to discuss ways to resume the Middle East peace process.
"It is obvious that there is an Israeli reconsideration to the decision to attack Gaza," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said. "We don't say that the danger is over, but we say that there is more realization to the gravity of such an adventure."
The delay in the strike against Palestinian militants, widely anticipated after a suicide bombing on Tuesday, extended a pause in the Israel-Palestinian conflict after the resolution of a 39-day siege involving Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.
The European Union's Middle East envoy, Miguel Moratinos, said 13 Palestinian militants released from the Bethlehem church and flown to Cyprus on Friday for exile abroad would leave for third countries as free men.
Israel has said it might still seek the extradition of the 13 as "people whose hands are stained with blood," citing their suspected role in suicide bombing missions that killed scores of Israelis as part of a 19-month-old Palestinian uprising.
Mr. Moratinos said, after meeting the men confined to a seaside hotel in Larnaca, Cyprus, that they were awaiting "final offers" of exile from EU countries, hopefully by tomorrow.
Palestinian leaders rejected any hand-over of the 13, who withstood an Israeli siege of the church along with 26 other militants who were sent to Gaza, saying Israel had no evidence the militants had done anything aside from fighting occupation.
In the West Bank, Israeli troops pulled out of the Palestinian town of Tulkarm yesterday, after a brief raid there. The military confirmed that there were no soldiers in Palestinian-run areas for the first time since March 29, when Israel began its operation to root out militants responsible for suicide bombings.
Also yesterday, a 14-year-old Palestinian boy was killed and two others, ages 11 and 14, were wounded by Israeli soldiers near the Karni crossing between Gaza and Israel, Palestinian hospital officials said.
In Tel Aviv, tens of thousands of people from Israel's left-wing peace camp, overshadowed recently by public outrage over suicide attacks, rallied to call for an Israeli pullout from the West Bank and Gaza to make peace with Palestinians.
Residents in Gaza, home to 1 million Palestinians, have been bracing for an Israeli incursion after a suicide bombing in a suburban Tel Aviv pool hall killed 15 Israelis last week.
But an Israeli official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said yesterday that the operation had been postponed. And military sources said some reservists had been sent home.
Israeli newspapers reported that the decision came in response to American pressure. But the Israeli official said Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer was concerned that too many details of the operation had been leaked, and that Palestinian militants had been given too much time to prepare.
Israeli officials hinted army action would be "surgical," unlike the broad onslaught against Palestinian towns in the West Bank carried out in March after earlier bombings.
In a communique issued at the end of the "mini" summit in Egypt, the three key Arab leaders affirmed their commitment to pursuing a peace deal with Israel in exchange for occupied Arab land. They also urged the global community to push Israel to withdraw from occupied areas to pave the way for peace.
"The three leaders stressed their commitment to the Arab peace initiative and that this initiative is the basis for any Arab action for achieving a just and comprehensive peace," the joint statement read out by Egyptian Information Minister Safwat el-Sherif said.
The three-way talks also marked the first head-to-head meeting between Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler and the other Arab leaders since he discussed ways to revive the peace process with President Bush last month.
Mr. el-Sherif said the three leaders reiterated a rejection of violence but renewed their backing for the 19-month-old Palestinian uprising.
Meanwhile Mr. Erekat, a chief negotiator for the Palestinians for years, was looking forward to the arrival of CIA Director George J. Tenet, who has been deeply involved in trying to bring the sides to a cease-fire. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Mr. Tenet would probably be here this week.


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