- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2003

From combined dispatches

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip — Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas yesterday canceled a visit to this town in northern Gaza after Israeli tanks and bulldozers once again rumbled in to try to destroy areas used by Palestinian militants.

The town had been the scene of a rare demonstration Tuesday, with hundreds of angry Palestinian residents burning tires and blocking roads to protest Palestinian militants, whose rocket attacks against the nearby Israeli town of Sderot had sparked an Israeli invasion.

Mr. Abbas was scheduled to tour Beit Hanoun yesterday to survey damage from a five-day Israeli occupation aimed at deterring militants from firing off primitive Qassam rockets.

The Israeli troops demolished 15 houses, uprooted thousands of trees and damaged the water and sewage systems, witnesses said.

As troops rolled through Gaza yesterday, soldiers searching a house in the West Bank city of Nablus found and destroyed an explosives laboratory hidden in a tunnel, the army said. Troops found six explosive belts, 55 pounds of explosives and other chemicals in the tunnel.

The army also destroyed the Nablus house of an Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade militant who carried out a suicide attack in Tel Aviv in January. Palestinian witnesses said eight families were left homeless by the demolitions. A house belonging to a second militant was also destroyed yesterday in Bethlehem, the army said.

Mr. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, canceled his visit for security reasons, and later called on Israel to “cease its escalations and invasions of Palestinian areas, because these actions only feed into the cycle of violence and deepen the hatred between the two peoples.”

Fifteen tanks took up positions just inside Beit Hanoun and bulldozers dug up earth nearby. Troops put up razor wire with a sign saying “Security zone, no entrance” before Mr. Abbas was due to arrive. The tanks would have provided a humiliating backdrop for the prime minister’s tour.

The cancellation came amid a New York Times report that President Bush may visit the Middle East to try to rescue a peace “road map” drawn up by the Quartet of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union. The report said a Bush visit to Israel was unlikely, but he could meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Kuwait or Qatar after attending a meeting later this month in the French Alps.

In a telephone call with Mr. Bush on Tuesday — the first since Mr. Abbas took office April 30 — the prime minister “stressed the importance of Israel’s implementing the road map, freezing settlements and stopping their attacks on Palestinian cities and villages,” Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has posed 15 reservations to the plan, most of them about security, and was to discuss them in talks with Mr. Bush originally set for Tuesday in Washington. Mr. Sharon postponed the visit after suicide bombers carried out five attacks on Israel in less than 48 hours, killing 12 Israelis. A new date has not been announced.

Yesterday, Mr. Sharon’s chief of staff was holding talks with Bush administration officials in Washington in a search for ways to counter terror and clear the path for negotiations with the Palestinians. Dov Weisglass arrived unannounced for a meeting with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other administration officials.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said yesterday that if Mr. Abbas “does not do what is needed” to end a string of attacks, “he will find himself in a short time ending up like” Yasser Arafat.

Mr. Arafat, whom Israel is trying to sideline because of his purported links to terror, has been holed up in his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah for more than a year.

The Chinese envoy to the Middle East met yesterday with Mr. Arafat, despite Israel’s threats to boycott officials who meet with him.

“The aim is to push both sides, the Israelis and Palestinians, forward with the peace process,” said Wang Shijie, China’s Middle East envoy.

In an interview published in Egypt, Mr. Abbas said he would not allow serious differences in his relationship with Mr. Arafat, and that the veteran leader remained in charge. He said there would be “no serious problems that lead to ‘divorce.’”

In Brussels, the European Commission’s senior energy official said Israel and the Palestinian Authority will hold talks on cooperating on energy infrastructure.

EU Energy Commissioner Loyola de Palacio told a conference in Athens that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have agreed “for the first time” to get together with the European Commission to identify energy projects of common interest, according to a text released in Brussels.

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