- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2003

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — A founder of the militant Islamic group Hamas condemned the latest U.S.-backed Mideast peace effort yesterday as Israel began dismantling an outpost for Jewish settlers as required by the initiative.

“It’s a big mistake. You won’t find any Palestinian who will tell you otherwise,” said Abdel Azziz Rantisi, a leader of Hamas, which is resisting appeals from Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to call off a 2-year campaign of attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers.

Mr. Rantisi helped found the militant Islamic group in the late 1980s.

In an interview, Mr. Rantisi said Sunday’s strike on an Israeli army checkpoint that killed four soldiers demonstrates that opposition to the U.S.-backed “road map” is widespread among the population. Hamas joined with rival militias Islamic Jihad and Fatah to carry out the attack.

“All Palestinian factions, both nationalist and Islamic, are with the resistance because no one supports the negotiations,” he said.

In Washington, President Bush condemned a new outbreak of violence in the Middle East and called on the prime ministers of Israel and the Palestinians to stand firm behind their pledges to support a U.S.-backed peace plan.

“I recognize there are going to be extremists, particularly in the Palestinian territories, that want to blow up peace. I think people are sick of it,” Mr. Bush told reporters.

Just four days after Mr. Bush presided over a three-way Mideast peace summit in Jordan, Palestinian militant groups claimed joint responsibility for an attack Sunday at a northern Gaza checkpoint that left four Israeli soldiers dead.

The Israeli army, meanwhile, removed two vacant trailers on a hilltop near the West Bank city of Ramallah and pulled down a water tower on a peak near the Israeli settlement of Ofra.

The peace initiative calls on Israel to disband dozens of Jewish settlements that have been erected in Palestinian territories over the past two years.

The dismantling drew out dozens of settlers who tried to impede the army’s work.

Settlement leaders pledged to draft thousands of supporters and show up at larger outposts slated for future removal, the Associated Press reported.

In the next few days, the army is planning to move settlers at the Gilad Farm, a hilltop outpost that the military tried to dismantle last fall.

Palestinians dismissed Israel’s outpost removal as a publicity stunt by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

“Sharon is playing a game of deception through the evacuation of some of the empty trailers in order to give legitimacy to the tens of settlements he established,” Cabinet Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo told the AP.

Mr. Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister, has come under withering criticism even among supporters for giving up too much at the summit in Aqaba, Jordan, last week with Mr. Bush and Mr. Sharon.

The main criticism is that Mr. Abbas failed to reiterate claims of Palestinian refugees to their former family homes inside Israel and claims to Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

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