- 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
- 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.
- ARAFAT GESTURE IGNORED
- 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."
- RESIST PLAN
- 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
- Since the Israeli strikes began Wednesday, 25 Palestinians
have been killed. Copyright © 2002 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.
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