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Sharon hopes 'peace' plan will see US abandon Arafat

6 May 2002

Amid the bloodiest Israeli military operation in the occupied territories since the 1967 war, Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, arrived in Washington yesterday, basking in President George Bush's description of him as a "man of peace" and determined to persuade the Americans to abandon Yasser Arafat.

Even as his aircraft took off from Tel Aviv, Mr Sharon's army was again storming into the West Bank town of Tulkarm and an Israeli tank was opening fire in Jenin, killing a Palestinian woman and her two children. The Israeli army later expressed its "deep sorrow" for the deaths.

The Israeli Prime Minister had hoped the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem would have ended by the time his plane took off, but talks involving American and British diplomats were continuing yesterday on the fate of up to 20 Palestinians. The 20 may now be offered asylum in Jordan, a considerable departure from Israel's initial demand for their jailing. The figure of "wanted" men in the church has decreased. At one point last month, the Israelis were claiming that more than 200 armed men were inside.

There were reports last night that a deal had been reached to end the siege, but by the early hours, it did not appeared to be finalised. One of the Palestinians in the church, Ibrahim Abayet, head of the al-Aqsa Matryrs Brigades in Bethlehem who is wanted by Israel said that he had heard that 14 people would be exiled abroad, and 24 would be dispatched to the Gaza Strip. He said a meeting was about to be held inside the church to discuss these numbers, but he said that they were "too high".

He said that the Palestinians inside the basilica would be willing to reject the offer, even if it was approved by the negotiators representing Mr Arafat.

Mr Sharon's much-publicised "peace" plan, which he will try to foist on the American administration this week, appears to contain three demands, the first of which is the replacement of Mr Arafat by a Palestinian leader more amenable to Israel's wishes.

Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority would have to be reconstituted by whom is not clear and its security services placed under a single leadership. Negotiations could begin on Palestinian statehood, but without Mr Arafat's participation. The plan includes no attempt to halt illegal Jewish settlement building, or any reference to Jerusalem.

Mr Sharon also intends to present Mr Bush with a book of more than 100 pages that purports to prove Mr Arafat has been intimately involved in "terrorism" against Israel. The volume, complete with misspellings and referring to the European Union as the "European Unity", suggests that EU as well as American money has funded Palestinian attacks on Israel and also claims that one of the Palestinian officials working intimately with the CIA for seven years is a leader of "terrorism".

When one of Mr Sharon's ministers presented the "evidence" to journalists in Jerusalem yesterday, he had great difficulty explaining why the Israeli government after repeatedly naming Mr Arafat and one of his underlings, Tawfiq Tirawi, as organisers of "terror" should have just freed both men. "It's a good question," Dan Naveh, the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, responded. "... To my mind, the most important thing is that Arafat can't be a partner for peace in the future."

The Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported yesterday that Israeli army units were "fighting for the spoils" of the West Bank operations after taking dozens of British-made Land Rovers from the Palestinian Authority.

Robert Fisk, Jerusalem
Published in the Independent © 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

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