Arafat says election depends on Israel

Withdrawal from land must precede free vote, Palestinian leader says


JERUSALEM - Only hours after two of his top aides said he was ready to run for election within six months, Yasser Arafat said yesterday that Palestinians could not hold elections until Israeli forces pulled back from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Arafat's brief remarks cast confusion on the drive for reform in his Palestinian Authority, which has increasingly been viewed by many Palestinians as inefficient, corrupt and autocratic.

On Thursday, Palestinian legislators began drawing up reform proposals, envisioning a shake-up and paring down of Arafat's roster of ministers as well as elections by early 2003. The legislative committee, which included many longtime critics of Arafat, was moving fast to capitalize on a speech he made Wednesday conceding a need for change.

By Thursday night, two of Arafat's top aides, Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo and the Cabinet secretary-general, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, were talking of elections as soon as the fall, or within four to six months.

But as he emerged from Friday prayers at a sandbagged mosque in Ramallah at midday, Arafat was asked by waiting journalists when free elections would be held.

"As soon as we'll finish this occupation of our land," Arafat replied in English. "According to the agreement, it was supposed to be at the beginning of 1999."

Two aides to Arafat, Nabil Shaath and Nabil Abu Rdeneh, later clarified Arafat's remarks, saying that what he meant was that the Israeli army must withdraw from the positions it has set up since the current round of fighting flared in September 2000.

After Arafat's comments yesterday, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Raanan Gissin, suggested that Arafat was trying to use the Israelis as an excuse to avoid elections.

"He knows very well that as long as he doesn't take any action against terrorism, Israeli forces will have to remain there," Gissin said.

In recent days, the Israelis have reverted to their practice of carrying out raids in territory that had been turned over to Palestinian control under the Oslo agreement of 1993, which called in part for an Israeli withdrawal from territory it captured during the 1967 war.

Israeli troops, backed by tanks, poured into the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank before dawn. A main target was a Hamas militant named Jamal Abu al-Haija. He was not home, but the soldiers burned down his house, Palestinians there said. In fighting last month in the camp, 23 soldiers - a staggering casualty count by Israeli standards - and more than 50 Palestinians were killed and a wide area of densely packed homes were flattened by Israeli armored bulldozers and tanks.

The Israeli army described the raid as a "pinpoint operation in the refugee camp," adding that "arrests were made."

In the course of what now passes for a relatively quiet day here, a Palestinian man was shot dead in Gaza trying to charge a Jewish settlement.

An Israeli Arab woman was killed in the West Bank when her car was fired on. The Israeli army said soldiers fired at the car as it sped toward a checkpoint, the Reuters news service reported. A 7-year-old Palestinian boy, Amid Abu Seir, was shot dead and a half-dozen other Palestinians, including his father, were injured by fire from an Israeli armored vehicle at the Askar refugee camp near Nablus, Palestinian witnesses said.

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