- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

JERUSALEM — Yasser Arafat yesterday asked militant groups to halt attacks on Israelis, the Palestinian leader’s first public attempt to restore calm since the collapse of the armed groups’ unilateral truce.

Israel, which has tried to sideline Mr. Arafat from the peace process, dismissed his appeal as empty rhetoric and said the army would keep rounding up terror suspects and hunting down their leaders.

Militants formally abandoned the nearly two-month unilateral cease-fire after Israel responded to a deadly suicide bombing in Jerusalem last week with missile strikes on Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Arafat stepped forward with the appeal at a time when he is caught in a power struggle with his prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, and when the United States is pressing the Palestinians to act against militants, a key requirement under the battered U.S.-backed “road map” for peace.

Mr. Arafat rejected U.S. demands he give Mr. Abbas control of key security forces that would lead any sustained crackdown. Instead, he appointed his own security adviser, the tough former West Bank security chief, Jibril Rajoub.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said he did not believe the United States would have a problem with Mr. Rajoub working for Mr. Abbas.

“What we want is to see all the Palestinian security forces consolidated under Mr. Abbas,” Mr. Reeker said. “That’s the point. It’s not the personality.”

Mr. Rajoub openly supports the peace plan and has arrested militants in the past. But in an interview, he suggested Israel should stop military action before any Palestinian crackdown.

“The ball is now in the American court to pressure Israel and monitor the process of implementation,” Mr. Rajoub said. “If Israel stops its attacks and begins to take serious steps to end the occupation, all the conditions that are demanded of the Palestinians will be fulfilled on the spot.”

Mr. Abbas staked his political future on being able to rein in Palestinian militants through persuasion rather than force. With his authority crumbling, he was meeting with Cabinet ministers yesterday to rally support.

In his statement yesterday, Mr. Arafat called on armed groups to renew their commitment to a truce and “to give a chance to political and peaceful efforts by the international community to implement the road map.”

Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said Mr. Arafat’s statement was meaningless. “Arafat has never stopped supporting the strategy of terror,” Mr. Gissin said. “He has no interest in a peaceful solution.”

The armed groups declared June 29 they were halting attacks on Israel for three months but later changed the terms, saying they had the right to retaliate for Israeli military strikes.

During the cease-fire, the militants carried out three bombings, including last week’s Jerusalem bus attack, which killed 21 persons including the suicide bomber.

In retaliation, Israel killed a Hamas leader, Ismail Abu Shanab, in a missile strike, prompting militant groups to formally call off the truce.

Yesterday, Israeli troops detained about a dozen members of a radical PLO faction in Ramallah, where Mr. Arafat has his headquarters.

In Nablus, Israeli troops blew up a house in the old city belonging to a fugitive, Khalid Saiegh. The house was reportedly used for weapons storage.

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