Arafat calls for end to suicide bombings against Israel; Israel skeptical
JERUSALEM (AP) — In Yasser Arafat’s strongest call yet for an end to violence, the Palestinian leader said in a televised speech Sunday that suicide bombings and all other “terrorist activities” against Israel must cease. He pledged to arrest militants who persisted with attacks.
Israel reacted with skepticism and said it would press its military raids to track down Palestinian militants if Arafat did not act swiftly.
In the Arabic-language speech to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, Arafat also asserted that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had “declared war” on the Palestinian Authority.
The only way out of the crisis, Arafat said, was to resume peace talks immediately and move toward a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with Jerusalem as its capital.
Throughout the latest cycle of violence, Arafat has often been evasive when pressed about attacks by Palestinian militants. But with Israel waging aggressive retaliatory strikes, and with international support for the Palestinians slipping, Arafat was more explicit than at any time during the nearly 15 months of fighting.
“Today, I am reiterating my call for a comprehensive cessation to all the armed activities,” Arafat said from his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “I call for a complete stop to all activities, especially the suicide attacks that we condemn always.”
He pledged to arrest Palestinians who carried out attacks, though Israel has sharply criticized what it calls Arafat’s “revolving door” policy of temporarily detaining low-level militants, but not locking up leaders of the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Raanan Gissin, a Sharon spokesman, said Israel was waiting for action. “Today is the first day that we had complete quiet in the (Palestinian) territories, which proves one thing: When Arafat wants, there can be complete quiet,” Gissin said. “Don’t make declarations. Start making arrests, start doing what you promised,” Gissin added. “He has to dismantle the suicide bombers’ assembly line.”
U.S. officials also expressed wary optimism about Arafat’s speech. “Now, he must turn these important words into effective and sustained action against terror and violence,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
Israel’s Cabinet broke off contacts with Arafat and declared him “irrelevant” after a deadly Palestinian ambush on an Israeli bus near a West Bank settlement last week. Officials have dismissed as a sham Arafat’s actions, including the recent claimed arrests of 180 militants.
Throughout his speech, Arafat said Israel was responsible for the latest crisis. He said the Palestinians should observe a cease-fire, but he did not explicitly call for an end to the uprising.
“We declared the state of emergency, and we have implemented a series of arrangements … including declaring illegal all (groups) which are committing terrorist activities,” he said.
It was highly unusual for Arafat to refer to Palestinian attacks as “terrorist activities” — it was believed to be the first time he has employed such language during the current uprising.
When commenting on Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians, Arafat and members of his Palestinian Authority routinely say they condemn the killings of all civilians, whether they are Israelis or Palestinians.
Arafat also called for an end to mortar attacks against Israeli settlements, which have been prompting Israeli airstrikes that often target buildings used by Palestinian Authority security forces.
It was not immediately clear whether Hamas and Islamic Jihad would listen. They have carried out more than 30 suicide bombings during the current uprising and have ignored previous calls to halt attacks.
The violence led to the collapse of peace negotiations in January. Addressing the Israeli people, Arafat urged an immediate resumption of the talks. He concluded the half-hour speech by saying, “See you in Jerusalem.”
However, in the current climate of hostilities, such negotiations appear unlikely soon.
The Palestinians, who rely heavily on international support, have seen that backing decline following the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the subsequent U.S.-led campaign against international terrorism.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said the ongoing Palestinian attacks were not only undermining peace efforts, they were weakening Arafat’s stature as the Palestinian leader.
“He is being attacked and his authority is being destroyed by Hamas and (Islamic Jihad),” Powell said in Washington on “Fox News Sunday.”
The United States has recalled U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni to Washington after he was unable to broker a truce during three weeks of negotiations in the Middle East.
Since Zinni’s arrival, more than 40 Israelis have been killed, including three suicide bombings that killed 26 people.
“Zinni went to help the parties, but they were not ready to be helped,” Powell said.
Arafat said he was aware that the U.S. campaign against terror was having an impact on the Middle East. “We understand the changes in the world,” Arafat repeated three times.
Arafat’s speech came after several days of intense violence.
In a series of Israeli raids Friday and Saturday into Palestinian-run areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 10 Palestinians were killed, scores were wounded and at least 65 arrested. Four more Palestinians were killed while attempting to launch attacks, Israel said.
Israeli troops on Saturday temporarily took over part of the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, a Hamas stronghold, arresting 15 Palestinians. Hundreds of Palestinian youths threw stones and set tires ablaze, and the confrontations escalated into shooting exchanges between Palestinian security forces and Israeli troops.
Despite the violence, the Palestinian Authority said it was continuing its own campaign against the militant groups. Police shut down 14 Hamas and Jihad offices in the West Bank. The offices oversaw cultural, educational and religious activities.
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