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Arafat's Fatah group pledges to stop attacks in Israel
By Mark Lavie, Associated Press, 09/10/02
JERUSALEM -- Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement pledged for the first time Tuesday to try to stop attacks on Israeli civilians by its militiamen, creating a small opening for a truce. Other militant groups said attacks would continue.
A Fatah leader, however, cast doubt on the statement, and Israeli officials dismissed it as giving tacit approval for attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The statement came a day after Arafat spoke to the Palestinian Legislative Council, meeting at his headquarters in Ramallah, and repeated his call for an end to attacks on Israeli civilians. In the past, West Bank Fatah activists have defied such calls and continued attacks.
Early Wednesday, Israeli tanks and troops moved into northern Gaza, Palestinians said, taking control of the town of Beit Lahiya and part of Beit Hanoun. The Israeli forces included bulldozers, indicating they planned to knock down structures. There was some gunfire, but no casualties were reported. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.
Meanwhile, senior Israeli and Palestinian officials met to discuss measures to ease tensions. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat, a confidant of Arafat, headed the two teams.
Palestinian Trade Minister Maher el-Masri said the meeting produced no results.
A statement from Peres' office said that in the next few days, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer would meet with his Palestinian counterpart, Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, to discuss a Palestinian proposal that Israel withdraw its forces from the section of Hebron that was returned to the Palestinians under the 1990s interim accords but later reoccupied by Israel.
"In every place where you can prove that you are taking responsibility (for stopping terror attacks), we will pull out," Peres told the Palestinians, according to the statement.
In mid-June, Israel took control of seven of the eight main Palestinian population centers, responding to suicide bombings in Israel. Under an agreement last month, Israel returned Bethlehem to the Palestinians, but the other part of the understanding -- restoring Palestinian control in reoccupied parts of Gaza -- has not been implemented.
The Fatah statement Tuesday was unusual in that for the first time the group cited not just practical reasons for opposing attacks -- that they prompt Israeli retribution and create world sympathy for Israel, but also out of a need "to prevent all attacks against civilians in accordance with our moral values."
Groups affiliated with Fatah, most notably the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, have carried out scores of attacks during the two years of fighting, including some suicide bombings and shootings inside Israel.
The statement said the attacks give Israel an excuse to retaliate and denounced Israel's actions as "aggressive acts taken by the occupier." It listed the expansion of Jewish settlements, demolition of Palestinian houses, curfews, roadblocks and other measures by Israel.
The statement said Fatah endorsed the Palestinians' "legitimate rights in resisting the occupation" -- usually a formula for justifying attacks on soldiers and the more than 200,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.
However, senior Fatah leader Hussein al-Sheik said the three-page document was just a draft. He said it was part of a dialogue between Fatah and militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad which ended after the Israeli air force bombed a Gaza apartment building earlier this summer, killing top Hamas militant Salah Shehadeh and 14 other people. "We still have some reservations," al-Sheik said.
Another Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti, expressed his reservations in a statement from an Israeli jail, emphasizing that the group reserved the right to fight Israeli occupation. Barghouti, a leader of the Palestinian uprising, is on trial for alleged terrorism.
Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the Fatah statement was insufficient because it did not rule out attacks against Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza.
"There can't be any acceptance of divisions of terrorism," Gissin said, "in other words if you attack in Israel that's bad terrorism, but if you attack in the territories, that's good terrorism."
Palestinians demand a state in all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip with the mainly Arab section of east Jerusalem as its capital. Because of the violence, which helped topple the Israeli government of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Sharon canceled a proposal that came close to meeting most Palestinian demands and appears willing to offer far less.
In Ramallah, the Palestinian parliament debated Arafat's new Cabinet -- the result of a June reshuffle -- but was not expected to vote until Wednesday. A group of legislators threatened to topple the Cabinet, saying Arafat has failed to fire corrupt and incompetent ministers.
The vote is seen as a test of Arafat's political strength. After decades of one-man rule, Arafat has been weakened in recent months. The United States and Israel are disregarding him as a matter of policy. Many Palestinians are dissatisfied with what they see as vague promises to carry out reforms and fight corruption.
Arafat's Fatah movement has been among his main critics, with activists calling for him to appoint a prime minister -- a demand backed by the United States.
Speaking to reporters late Tuesday, Arafat said a prime minister could be appointed only after creation of a Palestinian state.