- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 21, 2004

JERUSALEM — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell embarked yesterday on a mission to revive the Middle East peace process after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s death. Israel, under U.S. pressure to facilitate upcoming Palestinian elections, said it would consider pulling back troops from disputed areas in the West Bank.

Mr. Powell arrived in Israel hours after Assistant Secretary of State William J. Burns held talks with both sides, becoming the first senior U.S. diplomat to meet with top Palestinians in several months. Mr. Powell has separate meetings scheduled with Israeli and Palestinian officials today.

The visits are part of an international push for progress toward a new Israel-Palestinian accord after Mr. Arafat’s Nov. 11 death and ahead of Jan. 9 elections to pick his successor as president of the Palestinian Authority. The United States and Israel boycotted Mr. Arafat, saying he was tainted with terrorism.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw will visit the region this week, and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos is expected Dec. 2.

“I am here to stress strong American support for the Palestinian election,” Mr. Burns said after meeting interim Palestinian Authority President Rauhi Fattouh in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Near Ramallah in Beitunia, Israeli special forces killed a Palestinian fugitive and two other militants in a car yesterday, the military said. The Palestinians opened fire first, the military said. Palestinian security officials said the three were members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a violent offshoot of the ruling Fatah party.

Israeli troops also fatally shot an armed Palestinian who tried to attack a road in the Gaza Strip used by Jewish settlers, the Israeli army and the militant group Islamic Jihad said.

In the meeting with Mr. Burns, Palestinian leaders asked the United States to pressure Israel to remove troops from West Bank cities and towns to allow campaigning and a free election.

“We are determined to do everything we can to help in that process, and we also support steps by Israel which are needed to facilitate this election,” Mr. Burns said, without elaborating.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Israel has “every intention of redeploying [troops] so as to allow them to have their process of election.”

Shortly after the latest round of Middle East violence erupted in September 2000, Israel sent troops back into West Bank areas ceded to the Palestinians under interim peace accords. Troops set up dozens of roadblocks and cut off cities and towns, often confining hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to their home communities.

Palestinians have had only one general election, in 1996. Elections have been scheduled several times in recent years but then canceled, because Palestinians said they could not carry out a campaign with the Israelis in control of the territory.

Israel has explained its tough security measures, which have contributed to severe disruption of the Palestinian economy and widespread poverty, by pointing to more than 100 Palestinian suicide bombings in the past four years and the need to prevent further attacks.

However, Mr. Arafat’s death has softened the Israeli line and raised world expectations for a thaw.

Mr. Regev said the new Palestinian leadership “could help us by coming down on the terrorists,” but he did not make that a condition for an Israeli withdrawal of troops.

For their part, Palestinians say Israel is to blame for the violence and should resume peace talks with no preconditions.

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