- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 11, 2002

JERUSALEM Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement pledged for the first time yesterday to try to stop attacks on Israeli civilians by its militiamen, creating a small opening for a truce. Other militant groups said attacks would continue.

A Fatah leader, however, cast doubt on the statement, and Israeli officials dismissed it as giving tacit approval for attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The statement came a day after Mr. Arafat spoke to the Palestinian Legislative Council, meeting at his headquarters in Ramallah, and repeated his call for an end to attacks on Israeli civilians. In the past, West Bank Fatah activists have defied such calls and continued attacks.

The Fatah statement yesterday was unusual in that for the first time the group cited not just practical reasons for opposing attacks, that they prompt Israeli retribution and create world sympathy for Israel, but also out of a need "to prevent all attacks against civilians in accordance with our moral values."

Groups affiliated with Fatah, most notably the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, have carried out scores of attacks during the two years of fighting, including some suicide bombings and shootings inside Israel.

The statement said Fatah endorsed the Palestinians' "legitimate rights in resisting the occupation" usually a formula for justifying attacks on soldiers and the more than 200,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.

However, senior Fatah leader Hussein Sheik said the three-page document was just a draft. He said it was part of an ongoing dialogue between Fatah and militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. "We still have some reservations," Mr. Sheik said.

Another Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti, expressed his reservations in a statement from an Israeli jail, emphasizing that the group reserved the right to fight Israeli occupation. Mr. Barghouti, a leader of the Palestinian uprising, is on trial for purported terrorism.

Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the Fatah statement was insufficient because it did not rule out attacks against Israelis.

"There can't be any acceptance of divisions of terrorism," Mr. Gissin said.

In Ramallah, the Palestinian parliament debated Mr. Arafat's new Cabinet but was not expected to vote until today. A group of legislators threatened to topple the Cabinet, saying Mr. Arafat has failed to fire corrupt and incompetent ministers.

Meanwhile, Israeli and Palestinian officials headed by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat, a confidant of Mr. Arafat, met to discuss measures to ease tensions. Palestinian Trade Minister Maher Masri said the meeting produced no results.

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