Sharon tries to assure Israel on peace

Buffer between nation, West Bank ordered

3 arrested in official's death

February 22, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, facing mounting criticism that his hard-fisted approach to ending the Palestinian conflict has failed, went on nationwide television last night to assure a divided public that he can restore peace.

Sharon had been widely expected to outline specific strategies for ending the expanding conflict in light of recent media polls that show two-thirds of Israelis do not believe he has any plan beyond escalating warfare, but instead he gave what amounted to a pep talk.

Officials had suggested that he would not back off military responses to Palestinian attacks but that he would announce ways to ease restrictions on Palestinian civilians. Instead, Sharon said he has ordered a buffer zone for "security separation" along the dividing line between the West Bank and Israel.

He declined to detail what the buffer zone entails but said significant strategic changes would be discussed in parliament in the next weeks.

As he talked, Israeli warplanes launched a third wave of strikes against Palestinian targets in the Gaza Strip, another in a series of attacks that has left at least 34 Palestinians dead in the past three days in reprisals for deadly terror attacks by Palestinian militants in the past week.

Meanwhile, in a surprising move, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had his police arrest yesterday three of the four suspects in the assassination Oct. 17 of Israeli Tourism Minister Rahavem Zeevi. The move fulfills one of Sharon's remaining requirements to end the military siege on Arafat's Ramallah headquarters, which has kept the leader under virtual house arrest for more than two months.

Israeli security officials confirmed the arrests, but Sharon's spokespeople said they wanted the suspects either tried or extradited before they order the tank parked near Arafat's front door to move away. They called the arrests "a small but important step."

Arafat, speaking with reporters after meeting with religious leaders, once again restated his Dec. 16 cease-fire order, which had held for about three weeks but was shattered by a Palestinian attack on an army base and an Israeli assassination of a militant leader.

Today, Israeli and Palestinian officials are expected to resume joint security council meetings brokered by the CIA - the first time the group has met since Feb. 1 - to try to work out details for a new cease-fire.

In his speech, Sharon said he will continue to talk with top Palestinian officials, but he repeatedly stressed that he will not negotiate until there is a complete cessation of violence.

"I thought that after months of no peace, no security and no economic stability that Sharon would tell his people that it was time to end this war," said Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority.

"He talks about making painful concessions, and the only thing he offers is creating more buffer zones, which means more settlements, more checkpoints and more confiscation of land. I think he wants another year of bombardment. I think the man was asking the Israeli voices of peace and moderation to shut up."

Sharon is boxed in in a coalition government whose hard-line members demand that Arafat be forcibly ousted from power and a liberal left that wants an immediate return to negotiations even as violence continues.

The prime minister, as he has done before, refused to back either side, assuring the status quo will prevail.

Several times, Sharon appeared to brace people for a prolonged conflict. "One must remember that there are no magical solutions," he said, "and we must not be duped by false prescriptions proffered by experts and commentators."

Toward the end of his 20-minute address, he appealed directly to the Palestinian people, many of whom could watch the speech live on Qatar's al-Jazeera television or listen on Israeli Army radio, which has a broadcast in Arabic.

Sharon said he was specifically addressing impoverished Palestinians "who do not want war and are not involved in terrorism, but whose sole purpose is to support their families."

He told them: "Today, I suggest that you think long and hard what you and your children want to achieve in the coming years. Will you continue to follow those who lead you to ruin, destruction and despair?"

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