Israel to end Ramallah siege

Sharon and Arafat agree to U.S. compromise plan

Palestinian leader to go free

U.S., Britain will oversee jailing of 6 terror suspects

April 29, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - At the behest of the United States, Israel agreed yesterday to end its siege of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, after he and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to a compromise over the fate of six wanted men in his Ramallah compound.

Under a Bush administration plan, the six men - five accused of assassinating an Israeli Cabinet minister in October and the sixth of procuring a shipload of weapons - would serve time in a Palestinian jail under the eye of nonmilitary British and American security officials.

As soon as the prisoners are transferred to jail, Sharon said, Israel will withdraw its troops from Ramallah and allow Arafat to travel freely in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Arafat has been confined to several rooms in his headquarters since March 29 and is dependent on rations provided by Israel.

"This offer should be implemented immediately, within the next 24 hours," said Arafat's chief spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh.

Israel's Cabinet endorsed the U.S. plan by a vote of 17-9, but said Israeli soldiers would not withdraw until "the incarceration has been arranged" and the six men are under the control of foreign officials. U.S. and British security officials are scheduled to leave for Israel today.

Initially, members of the Israeli Cabinet were evenly split over the U.S. proposal. Sharon pushed the plan through after talking yesterday with Bush, on the heels of three conversations with the president on Saturday.

All of the dissenting votes were cast by members of Sharon's right-wing Likud Party who favor expelling Arafat and sending him into exile.

Bush said both sides must act to end the Middle East conflict: Israel must withdraw its forces from Palestinian cities, he said, and Arafat must "condemn and thwart terrorist activities."

Arafat "must earn my respect by leading," Bush said. "This has been a hopeful day for the region."

Early today, Israeli tanks accompanied by helicopter gunships moved into the West Bank city of Hebron, near the Jewish settlement of Adora, where Palestinian terrorists killed four Israelis on Saturday. It was not immediately clear whether the operation was a full-scale invasion or a limited attack against those Israel holds responsible.

U.N. mission barred

At the same session, the Israeli Cabinet decided to bar a United Nations fact-finding mission that was to investigate Israel's military assault on the Jenin refugee camp, where Israeli and Palestinian officials disagree over the number of casualties.

Israeli Cabinet ministers said the mission's original mandate, to investigate whether a massacre had occurred, had been expanded to include other aspects of the battle.

Israeli officials want the United States to help prevent a U.N. investigation by employing its veto in the Security Council.

"The price of refusal on Arafat is a clash with the United States at a time that we need it ... on the Jenin issue," Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told the Cabinet, according to Israeli Radio.

At Israel's request, U.N. officials have added military observers to the three-member team and agreed to keep testimony by soldiers confidential. Israel wants its soldiers to have immunity and wants to pick which ones testify.

The U.N. team was to have begun its investigation yesterday, but has been delayed for at least another 24 hours.

Palestinian officials are urging that the United Nations send the team anyway and challenge Israeli leaders to allow access to the camp.

Israeli Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin said the U.N. team's composition and intentions make it inevitable that Israel will be blamed unjustly for casualties in Jenin.

"This awful United Nations committee is out to get us, and is likely to smear Israel and to force us to do things which Israel is not prepared even to hear about, such as interrogating soldiers and officers who took part in the fighting," Rivlin said. "No country in the world would agree to such a thing."

Flurry of diplomacy

The compromise over the wanted men and Arafat came at the end of a busy weekend of diplomacy that involved the United States, Great Britain and Saudi Arabia. The compromise assured Sharon that the six Palestinians will remain in prison and assured Arafat that he will not have to turn them over to Israel.

Four of the six men were convicted last week in a hastily convened military tribunal inside Arafat's compound and received sentences of one to 18 years. The two yet to be tried are Ahmed Sa'adat, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Maj. Gen. Fuad al-Shobaki, Arafat's senior financial adviser, whom Israel accuses of arranging the shipment of weapons.

Asked how long the men would remain in jail, Sharon spokesman Arnon Perlman said: "I think they will remain in prison unless they are extradited to Israel."

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