- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 1, 2003

RAMALLAH, West Bank Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said he welcomes a U.S.-backed call for an immediate cease-fire with Israel, but stopped short of committing to steps the Palestinians would be required to take ahead of such a truce.
In a speech marking the anniversary of the 1965 founding of his Fatah group, Mr. Arafat also suggested that growing tensions over Iraq could make the Palestinians more vulnerable to Israeli military offensives.
"The ghost of war which is hovering over the Middle East today represents a good chance for the Israeli government and its occupation forces to continue its destructive war against our Palestinian people," Mr. Arafat said.
In Gaza City in the Gaza Strip, tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered in the main square to mark the anniversary, with participants chanting "Arafat, Arafat" as his speech was played over loudspeakers. It was one of the largest gatherings since he returned from exile in 1994 as part of interim peace agreements.
Mr. Arafat spoke to legislators and supporters at his sandbagged compound in the town of Ramallah. He has been confined there for a year by Israel.
The United Nations with the United States, the European Union and Russia has been formulating a "road map" to Mideast peace.
In the first stage of the three-phase plan by the so-called "Quartet," the Palestinians must "undertake an unconditional cessation of violence accompanied by supportive measures undertaken by Israel," the latest draft says.
Mr. Arafat said yesterday that he welcomes "the call by the Quartet for an immediate cease-fire between the two sides and in all areas." However, he did not refer to steps the Palestinians would have to take, including declaring an unequivocal end to violence and arresting those suspected of being militants.
In the first phase of the plan, Israel would have to withdraw from Palestinian areas it reoccupied since the outbreak of fighting 27 months ago. Israeli troops currently control most population centers in the West Bank.
Mr. Arafat reiterated that "we are against all acts of violence against Israeli and Palestinian civilians," but stopped short of urging Palestinian militias to halt such attacks. A militia linked to Fatah, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, has carried out scores of attacks, mainly shootings of Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza.
Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, dismissed Mr. Arafat's speech as more deception. "Arafat has constructed throughout the years an empire of terror and a kingdom of lies," Mr. Gissin said. "He promised us the peace of the brave and gave us the peace of the grave."
Mr. Arafat insisted that his hand remained stretched out in peace, and that Palestinians are ready to live in a state alongside Israel.
However, the Palestinian Authority and Fatah continue to support attacks on Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza, arguing that Jewish settlers are not civilians.
Yesterday, Israeli soldiers and Palestinians fought gunbattles near a Jewish settlement in Gaza, which left one Palestinian dead, Reuters news agency reported.
Palestinian security officials reported the man's death near Neve Dekalim settlement before dawn but said it was not clear whether he had been involved in the fighting.
An Israeli military source said soldiers had fired at two armed men, hitting one of them, during the clash.


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