Arafat denounces Bush policy shift

Leader says Palestinians won't cede right to return to former homes in Israel

April 16, 2004|By COX NEWS SERVICE

MAALE ADUMIM, West Bank - Palestinian President Yasser Arafat vented his anger yesterday at President Bush's Middle East policy shift, saying Palestinian refugees would never give up the right to return to their former homes in Israel.

In a televised speech, Arafat vowed that Palestinians would follow the path of their "martyrs, cadres, strugglers and mujahedeen" and not abandon their goals for "freedom and national independence."

"Security, peace and stability will only be achieved through the restoration of our occupied land and usurped national rights and the establishment of the independent Palestinian state, with its capital holy Jerusalem," Arafat said in ceremonies marking the anniversary of the death of Abu Jihad, a prominent leader in the campaign for Palestinian statehood.

On Wednesday, President Bush endorsed a plan by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to relocate 7,500 Jews from their settlements in the Gaza Strip and withdraw some Israeli troops from the seaside enclave that is home to about 1.3 million Palestinians.

At the same time, Bush reversed decades of U.S. policy and gave Washington's backing for Israel to keep some settlements in the West Bank. He also dismissed the right of Palestinians to return to their former homes in Israel.

In an exchange of letters with the visiting Israeli leader, Bush also condoned Israel's construction of a barrier to stop attacks against Israelis by Palestinian militants. In November, Bush had urged Israel "not to prejudice final negotiations with the placement of walls and fences."

Bush's endorsement was roundly condemned by Palestinian militant groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which called it "part of the American-declared war against Islam and ... in harmony with the American terrorism against our people in Iraq."

It also was denounced in the Arab world, where the Palestinian absence from the White House talks was viewed as a further example of Western bias and condescension.

"We expect the United States to play honest broker. We accused it before of not being balanced. Now we can't even say that. The United States has adopted Israel's position," Hesham Youssef, a senior Arab League official, said in the Egyptian capital, Cairo.

The European Union did not criticize Bush explicitly but said any agreement reached by Israel and the United States violated the U.S.-backed "road map" for Israeli-Palestinian peace, which Bush and regional leaders proclaimed last June in Jordan.

The EU "will not recognize any change to the pre-1967 borders [of Israel] other than those arrived at by agreement between the parties," Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen said in a statement on behalf of the EU presidency.

Cowen said the road map - drafted by the EU, United States, United Nations and Russia - underlined that any settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "must include an agreed, just, fair and realistic solution to the refugee issue."

At the United Nations, Kofi Annan expressed reservations about Bush's move, with his spokesman saying the secretary-general "strongly believes" that the parties to the conflict should refrain from taking steps that would pre-empt the outcome of negotiations based on Security Council resolutions.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is due at the White House today for talks with Bush, said he endorsed the Gaza pullout but made no comments on the other agreements reached by the Israeli and American leaders.

In Israel, Bush's embrace of Sharon boosted the Israeli premier's chances of winning endorsement for his "disengagement plan" at a scheduled May 2 referendum among the members of his Likud Party.

A poll conducted early yesterday by the Carto Geography Institute in Tel Aviv showed 57.5 percent of Likud's 200,000 voters supporting the disengagement plan and 37 percent opposing it. The rest were undecided.

In Maale Adumim, one of the West Bank settlements whose continued existence Bush backed as one of the irreversible "new realities on the ground," there was cautious optimism.

"I want to believe it. I hope that when Bush speaks, this is what he means and that he's not just trying to impress people," said Dafna Zaguri, 47, as she sipped a cappuccino in the shopping mall of the 30,000-strong settlement.

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