U.S. warns Arafat, Israel against violence

New strife dragging Bush administration into more direct role

March 30, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - New strife in the Middle East pushed the region back onto the agenda of the United States yesterday as President Bush sternly warned Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat against continued violence.

Bush also admonished Israel, saying the nation should ease restrictions on the Palestinian population and use restraint in its response to Palestinian attacks.

But the president's most forceful remarks at his unscheduled news conference were aimed at Arafat and backed up later by a telephone call to the Palestinian leader from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

"The signal I am sending to the Palestinians is, stop the violence. And I can't make it any more clear," Bush said. "I hope that Chairman Arafat hears it loud and clear."

The president's remarks came after new attacks, including the first major Israeli military action since Ariel Sharon took over as prime minister, added to the region's rising death toll.

The escalating crisis and Bush's stepped-up response raised questions among foreign policy analysts about how long Washington's wait-and-see approach to the Israeli-Palestinian problem can last.

Bush administration officials have talked repeatedly about taking a low-key "regional" approach to the Middle East, instead of focusing intensely on Israel's relations with Arabs. But as what Bush called "the tragic cycle of incitement" between Israel and the Palestinians grows more intense, so does the risk that the wider region will be drawn into the violence.

"I am sure that once this administration gets firmly in the saddle, they are going to become much more pro-active, because there's too much at stake to let things spin out of control," said Thomas Smerling, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-Israel think tank. "At some point they'll have to, because they can't afford the consequences of escalation beyond a certain point."

Israeli helicopter gunships killed two people Wednesday night in rocket attacks on Arafat's presidential guard in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Sharon has repeatedly accused the guard unit, known as Force 17, of planning and carrying out violence against Israelis. The airstrikes were conducted in retaliation for Palestinian attacks this week that killed two Israeli teen-agers and a baby.

Israeli soldiers killed two Palestinians in a confrontation yesterday with a mob throwing stones and Molotov cocktails in Gaza, according to Reuters.

Since Israeli-Palestinian fighting erupted last September in the wake of failed peace talks at Camp David, almost 450 people have been killed, including more than 360 Palestinians.

State Department officials declined to disclose the content of Powell's phone call to Arafat yesterday. But the message was probably the same as when Powell met Arafat several weeks ago in the West Bank, said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher: Stop the violence. And issue a clear statement in Arabic telling Palestinians to stop attacking Israelis.

Arafat vows revenge

However, Arafat and other Palestinian leaders expressed outrage yesterday at the Israeli helicopter attacks and vowed revenge.

"Our people will continue the Aqsa uprising until we raise the Palestinian flag in every mosque and church and on the walls of Jerusalem," Arafat said after inspecting Force 17 mobile homes destroyed by Israeli bombs.

Palestinian violence erupted last fall after Sharon, then out of power, visited the grounds of Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque in what Palestinians regarded as a provocative and contemptuous gesture. Israel and the Palestinians each claim Jerusalem as their own, particularly the portion containing the mosque and the remains of the Jewish Second Temple.

Israeli attacks Wednesday night blew out windows in Arafat's Gaza home, which is near the Force 17 facility.

Ahmad Helles, Gaza secretary-general of Arafat's Fatah faction, warned of Palestinian revenge.

"If they hit our cities and civilians, then every place in Israel is a legitimate target for our fighters and our revolutionaries," Helles told a rally, according to Reuters. "Any aggression on our land will not pass without retaliation."

Bush `fully engaged'

Bush tried to deflect the notion that his administration's level of engagement in the region has changed or that it is being drawn more deeply into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than was planned.

"We have been fully engaged in the Middle East. We're on the phone all the time to the leaders. I'm welcoming leaders to come," Bush said, referring to meetings scheduled with the leaders of Egypt and Jordan.

"A lasting peace in the region," Bush added, "will come only when the parties agree directly on its terms."

But many Middle East specialists and some foreign diplomats say Washington can't keep its engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian problem on a low simmer for long and that U.S. negotiators will again be acting as a direct mediator between the two sides.

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