Israel to relax some restrictions

Moves give Arafat boost, ease curbs on travel in West Bank, Gaza Strip

Israeli assassinations resume

October 15, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- In an effort to push forward U.S. calls for peace and to prove that political talk can translate into practical gains for the Palestinians, the Israeli government decided yesterday to ease some restrictions imposed on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The moves will make it easier for Palestinians to work in Israel and travel from town to town. It also gives a moral boost to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who is facing the wrath of his people for siding with America in its war against terror and Osama bin Laden.

Arafat needs to show the Palestinian masses that he can deliver more by talking with the Israelis than by shooting at them. His seven-year rule is under serious challenge from militant militia groups that embrace bin Laden and vow never to give up arms.

At the same time, Israeli leaders say that while violence has dropped markedly in the past several weeks, Arafat still has not done enough. But they believe that Arafat is sincere in his anti-Taliban stance and want to reward him for trying to move the crisis from the battlefield to the negotiating table.

"Everyplace where there is no shooting, we will remove the restrictions," said Ranaan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

But as with nearly every step toward serious talks between the two sides, there was a step backward with fresh violence.

There were several shootings at Israelis yesterday, a powerful bomb exploded near an army post on the Egyptian border and police said they thwarted two possible terror attacks in Jerusalem. No serious injuries were reported.

Israel resumed its practice of targeted killings yesterday, shooting a suspected leader of the militant Islamic group Hamas who was accused of orchestrating a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv disco that killed 21 people in June.

Military sources said Abdel Rahman Hamad, 35, was killed by an Israeli army sniper as he stood on the roof of his house in the West Bank town of Qalqilya. The Israeli army said he was on an arrest list ignored by the Palestinian Authority police.

Gissin said Hamad was planning an imminent terror assault in Israel.

"We are not taking responsibility for his death, but the very fact that he is not with us today has prevented a major terrorist attack today or tomorrow," Gissin said. "We reserve the right to defend ourselves. If he had been arrested by the Palestinian Authority, that would have solved the problem."

He said none of the 108 suspected terrorists on the arrest list given to the Palestinians had been apprehended.

"If Arafat wants to be part of the anti-terror coalition, then fine, but there are certain steps he is going to have to take," Gissin said.

The first assassination after a monthlong halt angered Palestinian leaders. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said it proves that Sharon wants to sabotage every attempt to sustain a cease-fire.

"The assassination today is a clear indicator that all the Israeli claims that they want to achieve peace and uphold the cease-fire are just lies," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian information minister. "The Palestinians have to be aware that we should not trust their [Israeli] promises."

Hamas, which had entered into a tentative agreement with Arafat to uphold the truce, told the Reuters news agency: "Israel will pay a very heavy price for this act. We will definitely respond very painfully."

A joint meeting was to be held last night with representatives from Israel, the Palestinians and the CIA. The group, which has not met for two weeks, was to finalize the restrictions to be eased in the Palestinian territories.

Previous truce accords and agreements to ease restrictions on the Palestinians have dissolved amid violence. But the United States is applying pressure on both sides to keep the conflict from becoming a hindrance to its coalition against terror.

The United States has chastised the Palestinians for not arresting militants and for failing to stop the violence, and criticized Israel for what it calls provocative acts, such as seizing Palestinian territory and assassinating suspected terrorists.

Arafat is trying to align himself with the pro-U.S., anti-terror camp, but he is up against opinion polls which show that more than 70 percent of the Palestinian people are against America's war in Afghanistan and sympathize with bin Laden, who endorsed their violent uprising in a videotape aired last week.

Arafat sparked further anger in the Gaza Strip when his police put down a pro-Taliban demonstration last week. Witnesses say Palestinian police fired into the crowd. Two people died that day; a third Palestinian died Saturday night.

The Palestinian Authority has backed the account given by police -- that masked gunmen among the protesters fired the fatal shots. But relatives of the three victims said yesterday that Arafat has two weeks to fire the Gaza police chief and put officers on trial or face mass unrest.

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