- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 29, 2002

JERICHO, West Bank A senior Palestinian leader warned yesterday that new Israeli incursions into the West Bank following a series of suicide bombings would not bring peace.

"People here are caged like animals," said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian Authority minister and leading peace negotiator. "I condemn any attacks on civilians. What Israel is doing to us can't be justified. Suicide bombings can't be justified."

Speaking in his office at the lowest and oldest city on earth, Mr. Erekat said that the closure of Palestinian cities would only increase the hatred that drives people to become suicide bombers.

Israel's latest strategy to fight suicide attacks has been to send troops into West Bank towns for short incursions aimed at seizing terrorist suspects.

It has also begun construction of a massive wire, earth and cement barrier along portions of the old Israel-West Bank border known as the Green Line.

Mr. Erekat said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new policy of incursions, along with Israel's nearly two-year policy of blockading Palestinians within their towns, means the Israeli leader has essentially torn up the peace accords negotiated in Oslo a decade ago.

Mr. Erekat is the fourth most popular figure in the Palestinian territories, according to a poll conducted in mid-May by pollster Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

Yasser Arafat remains on top with 35 percent backing him for re-election, followed by 10 percent backing jailed West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and 13 percent backing Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

President Bush "is wrong" if he believes Palestinians even though suffering under the closures and the war with Israel want to replace Mr. Arafat, Mr. Erekat said.

Several Palestinians in Jericho and Ramallah said that they continue to love Mr. Arafat even though they hope he will reduce corruption and take control over the gunmen roaming the streets of Ramallah and other cities.

"Arafat can't control anyone, but the people love him," said Fouad Tannous, 33, a money-changer at his shop in Ramallah.

"Nobody likes those people with the guns and those stolen cars they drive. That's why people don't listen to Arafat. Let him first control the city of Ramallah."

Outside his shop young men strutted with an assortment of machine guns slung over their shoulders, some leaning on walls adorned with posters of suicide bombers.

Mr. Shikaki, the pollster, said during an interview in Ramallah that "the paradox is that both societies Israelis and Palestinians want their leaders to change but know they won't change."

Mr. Shikaki said his most recent poll also showed that most Palestinians want peace with Israel, but most of them also believe that violence has helped them achieve some of their goals despite the onerous price they have paid for it.

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