Arafat, Sharon speeches feature calls for harmony

Men's words signal feeling-out process

March 11, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Amid fresh efforts to prevent a worsening of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat delivered a conciliatory message to the Israeli people yesterday, saying he understood their need for security.

"Our hearts are open, and our hands are stretched out for the `Peace of the Brave,'" Arafat said in a speech to Palestinian legislators here that was aimed at Israel as well.

The speech was the latest in a series of reciprocal gestures between Arafat and the new Israeli government headed by hard-liner Ariel Sharon, with each side trying to gauge the other's intentions.

As Israeli-Palestinian gunbattles continued in the West Bank and Gaza, officials from both sides worked behind the scenes to establish closer contact between Sharon and Arafat and to pick up the pieces of a shattered peace process. A top Arafat aide, Mohammed Rashid, was headed for Tel Aviv last night for talks that he said he hoped would improve the "environment" between the two sides.

Sharon and Arafat exchanged letters last week, and Nabil Amr, a Palestinian minister, told Reuters that efforts were under way to arrange a Sharon-Arafat meeting shortly.

Arafat's speech was in some ways a mirror image of the one Sharon gave Wednesday night when he completed his government. Sharon said then, in a message to the Palestinians: "The ongoing conflict between us has caused heavy suffering to both peoples," and "we extend our hand toward peace."

Arafat said, "We fully understand their [Israelis' ] need for security and stability." Israelis have been shaken by a series of fatal bombings inside the country and shooting attacks against Jewish settlers and soldiers on West Bank roads. Sharon was elected in large measure because people expect him to take stronger measures to protect them.

But Arafat quickly added, "On the other hand, they should understand the needs and the rights of the Palestinian people, the Arab nations and to respect our holy sites, Christian and Islamic."

Arafat didn't call for any halt or reduction in violence, which Sharon is requiring for more concessions by Israel.

Instead, Arafat demanded that Israel "stop the military escalation, using banned weapons and the policy of threats, siege and starvation, which has affected all aspects of Palestinian life and which will only lead to increased tension and to inject anger into the spirit of the people."

But in what Israelis might take as a positive sign, Arafat omitted any reference to what he calls the "blessed Intifada [uprising]." He reiterated that Palestinians had made a "strategic choice" for peace and called for negotiations to be restarted from the point where they ended with the previous Israeli government. Sharon refuses to be bound by understandings reached with his predecessor, Ehud Barak.

"It seems that the president has been extremely positive, and he's been trying to open doors. And this kind of speech is an opening-doors speech, rather than a sort of rhetorical speech," said Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi.

But fellow legislator Ziad Abu Amr said, "Fighters will continue their fight, because the Israeli siege, the Israeli measures on the ground, the Israeli settlers are still there."

Even if Arafat were to call for an end to violence, it's unclear he could enforce it on his people.

"The precondition for the negotiations to succeed is the continuation of the Intifada and the resistance," Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank Fatah leader and a key figure in the uprising, said at a conference in Ramallah yesterday.

Some Israelis speculate that Arafat hopes to provoke Sharon into harsh retaliation so as to cement the Israeli leader's belligerent reputation, revive Arab sympathy and generate support for an international force to be sent to the occupied territories.

Yesterday's legislative session here could not have occurred without Israeli cooperation. Israeli authorities eased up on a near-total ban on travel by Palestinians to allow West Bank lawmakers to move through Israel by taxi to Gaza. At least 61 of 87 members attended.

One conspicuous absentee was Marwan Barghouti. Accounts differed on whether he was barred from traveling by Israel or avoided going out of fear that Israeli security forces might capture him.

Arafat used the rare session to pledge major reforms in how his Palestinian Authority does business, responding to widespread public dissatisfaction with his authoritarian rule and with corruption and favoritism in the authority's upper ranks.

Among other steps, he pledged to sign legislation languishing on his desk to create an independent judiciary. "We were in serious trouble internally because of the absence of accountability [and] of an independent judiciary, of laws not being ratified. Now he's promised to do all these things. We'll see," said Ashrawi.

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