Sharon Buffer Zone Plan
Sparks Palestinian Outcry
By Matt Spetalnick

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to set up buffer zones between Israel and the Palestinian territories drew Palestinian outrage Friday, adding to tensions caused by the worst violence in 17 months of conflict.
Sharon, under pressure from the right and the left after a series of bombings and ambushes, said in a nationally televised speech Thursday "security separation" from the Palestinians was the recipe for protecting Israelis from attacks.
But Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo condemned the move, which followed a day of Israeli reprisal raids that killed nine people, as an attempt to "create jails for the Palestinian people within their cities, towns and villages.
Sharon gave few details, but his comments were widely interpreted to mean he would seal off some Palestinian areas and might even put slices of Palestinian-ruled land bordering the Jewish state back under Israeli military control.
The right-wing prime minister tried to shore up Israelis' sagging morale, urging them to stand firm and ignore dissenting voices, but he offered no new ideas for ending the bloodshed.
His initiative appeared aimed at staving off growing criticism across the political spectrum for failing to subdue the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation despite stepped-up use of military might.
At least 888 Palestinians and 273 Israelis have been killed since the revolt began.
Sharon struck a stern tone toward the Palestinians following a second day of fierce bombardments of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in retaliation for the killing of six Israeli soldiers.
He vowed the military would not rest "until the terrorist network has been destroyed."
But he pledged: "Israel will do everything in its power to prevent a slide into total war." This week has seen the worst sustained violence since the start of the uprising in September 2000.
Despite that, Sharon ignored Yasser Arafat's conciliatory gesture earlier Thursday in which he reiterated his December 16 cease-fire call to Palestinians.
Palestinian cabinet minister Nabil Shaath said Sharon had "offered no hope...and opened no way to ending the confrontation and heading back to the peace table."
A State Department official said Sharon's plan could amount to the kind of unilateral action which Washington has opposed, but said the United States was reserving judgement.
The latest fighting -- in which 39 Palestinians, including two suicide bombers, and 10 Israelis have been killed since Monday -- has left international peace efforts in tatters.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, whose country holds the European Union's rotating presidency, called the situation practically (one) of war and said it would be hard for the EU to put forward any peace initiative in the current climate.
In New York, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said: "Truly we are nearing the edge of the abyss."
Sharon said the new buffer zones were intended to increase Israelis' security -- a campaign promise he has yet to fulfil since being elected in February 2001.
"We decided to establish buffer zones to achieve security separation," Sharon said. "We decided to start immediately designating buffer areas and establishing obstacles along their length."
Measures could include anything from building walls and digging trenches on Israel's border with the West Bank and Gaza Strip to expanding the network of checkpoints and roadblocks that already keep a stranglehold on Palestinian areas. It was also unclear how far Sharon was prepared to go in meeting demands of right-wingers, who want to retake slices of Palestinian-ruled areas to ratchet up the pressure on Arafat while guaranteeing security for Jewish settlements.
But Shaath said: "If separation is intended to stop suicidal missions, it has failed. If it's intended to stop trade and communication between the two peoples, it has succeeded to the misery of both."
Abed Rabbo vowed Palestinians would resist Sharon's plan, saying it would "transform our areas into isolation centers."
Sharon also demanded disarmament of Palestinian areas as a step toward calming the conflict and repeated his insistence on a complete halt to violence before he would negotiate -- a condition the Palestinians have called unrealistic.
But after Arafat's security forces arrested three suspects in the assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister, Sharon said his cabinet would review its decision to confine the Palestinian leader to the West Bank city of Ramallah.
The Israeli government had made the arrest and trial of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi's killers a condition for lifting the blockade on Arafat, who has been surrounded at his headquarters by Israeli tanks since early December.
The latest attacks were part of a stepped-up response by Israel after Tuesday's ambush that killed six soldiers at a West Bank checkpoint, one of the worst blows to the Israeli army since the conflict erupted.
Since the Israeli strikes began Wednesday, 25 Palestinians have been killed. Copyright © 2002 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of Reuters content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters. Reuters shall not be liable for any errors or delays in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon.

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