Military occupation by Israelis likely to last

Departing chief of staff says only ouster of Arafat may prompt withdrawal


JERUSALEM - Israel's departing military chief of staff said yesterday that only the ouster of Yasser Arafat or his replacement as Palestinian leader might prompt an Israeli withdrawal in coming months from the seven West Bank cities it has placed under 24-hour curfew.

As long as Arafat and the risk of Palestinian violence remain, "we will have no choice but to stay in the Palestinian cities," the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, said in a valedictory interview published yesterday in the newspaper Yediot Ahronot.

Asked if that meant that Israeli troops would remain in the Palestinian cities for months, he replied, "At least."

He said the army would "allow food, water, fuel in" to areas except those "where there is terror." About 700,000 Palestinians live in the areas newly under Israeli military control.

Palestinians, aid groups and some foreign diplomats have protested the Israeli position, but Israelis are rallying around it. Despite a sagging Israeli economy, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's approval rating has soared. Two weeks have passed without a suicide attack in Israel.

"That's the reason why nobody's objecting to semipermanent military operations in Palestinian cities," said Mark Heller, a senior researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "You can go through all the convoluted analysis you want and then come up with a standard input-output analysis." That, he said, amounts to: Put the army in and stop the terrorism coming out.

Palestinians say that by deferring peace negotiations and asserting military control over what by treaty is Palestinian-administered territory, Israel will provoke more violence.

In Washington, the State Department and White House declined to comment on Mofaz's remarks. But U.S. officials referred to an interview last week in which Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said that although President Bush had called for Israeli forces to pull back from the West Bank, he did not expect that withdrawal to begin immediately.

"We're not expecting that to happen right now while Israel is being subjected to a bomb a day," Powell said at that time.

He continued, "What we are hoping to see happen is some more responsible leadership come up within the Palestinian movement that gives the Israeli government some confidence that if they start to release their grip, it will not be responded to by just new violence ... again."

In Gaza City yesterday, thousands of Palestinians marched in a funeral procession for two men, one of them a leader of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which has carried out suicide bombings against Israelis. The two men died in a car explosion Thursday night that Palestinians called an Israeli assassination. The Israeli army had no comment on the deaths.

Early this morning, Agence France-Presse reported that Israeli soldiers had opened fire on a group of houses in Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip, killing a Palestinian, Khamas Shurab, 45.

In a survey published yesterday in the newspaper Maariv, 69 percent of Israelis polled said Israel should await "a new Palestinian leadership" before conducting peace negotiations. That is the approach, first pressed by Sharon, that Bush embraced in a speech last week.

The Palestinian leadership has said that it plans elections for January but that it will be unable to carry them out if the Israeli army is still preventing movement by Palestinians within the West Bank.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a close aide to Arafat, said Bush administration officials "are asking us for reform and election, and they are not helping us carry out our reforms."

He said no American officials had been directly in contact with Arafat since Bush's speech June 25.

In the Maariv poll, which had a margin of sampling error of 4.5 percentage points, 58 percent of the Israelis surveyed said they supported expelling Arafat.

Sharon also favors expelling Arafat, but the chiefs of Israel's intelligence services and ministers of the left-leaning Labor Party oppose it.

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