Israel calls for cease-fire, Palestinians turn it down
JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called Tuesday for a total cease-fire with the Palestinians, and his defense minister ordered the army to quit shooting except ”when life is in danger.”
The Palestinians immediately rejected Sharon’s offer, which was in response to a report from an international commission that recommended ways to end nearly eight months of fighting.
”I call tonight for a total truce in the area, and I say again here that if the Palestinians accept this proposal to stop the fire, we will immediately stop the fire,” Sharon said at a televised news conference.
Later, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer ordered the Israeli army to stop all firing except ”when life is in danger” and called on the Palestinians to ”immediately stop violence and terrorism as a first step toward a return to the negotiating table.”
A senior Palestinian official, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, dismissed the proposal, calling Israel the aggressor. ”We reject everything Sharon said about a cease-fire.” Abdel Rahman, an aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, told The Associated Press.
Sharon said a cease-fire could lead to the implementation of a U.S.-backed plan for restarting peace talks. The proposal, published Monday by an international commission led by former Sen. George Mitchell, calls for a cease-fire, followed by a cooling-off period, confidence-building measures and finally, peace negotiations.
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer welcomed Sharon’s call.
Fleischer said it is ”vital” that ”the parties in the region unequivocally speak out and call for a cessation of the violence.” President Bush would ”welcome a similar statement” from Arafat, he said.
Sharon rejected a key recommendation of the commission – a total freeze on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinians say the settlement freeze is a key to implementing the rest of the proposals.
Even as leaders sparred over the recommendations, the violence persisted. Several exchanges of gunfire were reported in the West Bank. In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians fired three mortar shells at Israeli territory. The shells exploded harmlessly in open fields.
Israeli bulldozers entered Palestinian territory in Gaza and flattened farmland. The Israeli military said soldiers were searching for bombs. The Mitchell commission called on Israel to stop such moves because of the long-term economic damage to the Palestinians.
At the news conference, Sharon said the Palestinian Authority is acting like a terrorist organization. He said Israel ”must relate to it as a terror group” until it stops planning and carrying out attacks against Israel.
Sharon said his government pledged not to build new settlements, but would accommodate natural population growth in the 144 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Abdel Rahman said Israel’s moves are designed to continue its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. ”The Palestinian people’s response to the continuing aggression is to move forward with the intefadeh (uprising),” he said, ”to defend themselves and to resist the occupation.”
U.N. Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said after a meeting Tuesday with Arafat that a settlement freeze would ”make it easier for him (Arafat) to cool down the situation.”
The Mitchell report also called for renewed security cooperation, but Palestinians said this could not happen until an increasingly elusive peace agreement is signed. The coordination, aimed at stopping attacks against Israel, broke down after the current round of violence broke out on Sept. 28.
West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub, whose house was shelled by an Israeli tank on Sunday, said that ”as long as the Israelis are refusing to withdraw from our lands, to end their occupation, I think it’s unfair to talk about any kind of security contacts.”
Rajoub said the Palestinians accepted the Mitchell report as a way to end the conflict peacefully, but the first step must come from Israel. ”The Israelis should stop their attacks, … the Israelis should stop the settlements,” he told reporters.
In the West Bank, Israeli peace activists demonstrating in favor of dismantling Jewish settlements scuffled briefly with settlers. Legislator Mossi Raz of the dovish Meretz party said that while talking about natural growth, the Sharon government is actually allowing the settlers to create new outposts.
He said that since Sharon assumed office on March 7, 10 percent of all the country’s housing starts have been in settlements, and 15 outposts have been set up next to existing settlements.
Even if Sharon were to drop his adamant refusal to stop construction in settlements, it would cost him politically. Infrastructure Minister Avigdor Lieberman of the ultra-nationalist Israel Beitenu party said that if a decision is taken to freeze settlement construction, ”I don’t see how we can continue to serve in the government.”
Internal Security Minister Uzi Landau, from Sharon’s Likud party, said the Israeli military should pound Palestinian areas daily.
”I want to see Arafat’s people and the Palestinian Authority’s people constantly without time to plan anything, looking for shelter, and paying the price,” Landau told Israel radio.
The conflict that began in September has killed 471 on the Palestinian side and 84 on the Israeli side.
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