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Israel could cede Golan Heights, army chief says

In split from past, doesn't see area as key to security

JERUSALEM -- Israel could give up all of the Golan Heights for peace with Syria without compromising security, the army chief said in an interview published yesterday, undercutting the contention of successive governments that Israel needs to keep at least a slice of the plateau.

It was not clear whether Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon, an outspoken chief of staff who has stirred controversy in the past, was expressing his personal view or whether Israel was sending out feelers to Syria.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's aides declined to comment, and Syrian officials played down Yaalon's remarks. Syria has said a complete withdrawal from the Golan is a prerequisite for a peace deal.

In the West Bank, a Palestinian gunman killed Shlomo Miller, 50, the security chief of the Israeli settlement of Itamar, in a roadside ambush. Guards then shot and killed the gunman.

The attacker was a Palestinian policeman, and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant group with ties to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility. Israeli troops later demolished the assailant's two-story house in a nearby village, leaving nine people homeless.

Also yesterday, dozens of prominent Palestinians signed a newspaper ad with a list of demands for government reform and a war on corruption.

The ad, to be published today in the three largest Palestinian dailies, does not name Arafat or hold him in any way responsible, but is the most detailed manifesto by reformers since protests against official corruption erupted in the Gaza Strip last month.

Yaalon, the Israeli army chief, suggested that from a military point of view, Israel could afford to withdraw from all of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war.

''If you ask me, theoretically, if we can reach an agreement with Syria . . . my answer is that from a military standpoint it is possible to reach an agreement by giving up the Golan Heights," Yaalon told the daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot.

''The army is able to defend any border. This is correct for any political decision that is taken in Israel."

However, Yaalon also warned that Syria still poses a threat to Israel, and the two countries could again find themselves at war. Yaalon noted that Syria has ''missiles that put all of Israel in range and chemical capabilities."

Israel has long argued that giving up all of the Golan, which overlooks northern Israel, would endanger Israeli security. Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981.

In failed peace talks with Syria, Sharon's moderate predecessor, Ehud Barak, offered to give up virtually all of the heights but insisted on some border adjustments. The talks collapsed in 2000 with Syria demanding a full pullout.

Last year, Syria indicated it wanted to resume talks. Israel said Syria must first end its support for Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Palestinian radicals it hosts in Syria.

Ahmad Haj Ali, an adviser to the Syrian information minister, said yesterday that Yaalon's statements mean little ''unless they are associated with a serious move [toward peace] and with international guarantees."

The Palestinian newspaper ad, signed by about 100 legislators, intellectuals, and former Cabinet ministers, calls for ''deep and serious reform" of the government and the way decisions are made.

Earlier this week, legislators met with Arafat to press him for written guarantees on reform, something he promised earlier in hopes of silencing the growing complaints about official corruption and widespread chaos.

However, legislators walked away disappointed, saying they had the impression Arafat was again evading them.

Legislator Hanan Ashrawi, who was among those who met with Arafat and signed the reform manifesto, defended the group's decision not to criticize the Palestinian leader directly, even though he holds most of the power.

''The question is not criticizing Arafat or not criticizing Arafat. The question is dealing with issues, issues of reform," she said.

Although similar ads have been published in the past, none have been as detailed as the one to appear today.

''There is a need . . . to immediately put an end to all acts of corruption, chaos, and security chaos," the statement said.

It is being published after weeks of violent unrest in Gaza and the West Bank, most recently on Thursday when homeless Palestinians led by gunmen took over government buildings in a Gaza refugee camp. The Gaza unrest appears to be a power struggle preceding a planned Israeli withdrawal from the coastal strip.

The Israeli army's weekly, Bamahane, reported in its latest edition that the army has been flying a high-tech balloon over Gaza for the past month to spot Palestinian rocket launchers.

Critics of Sharon's pullout plan have said an Israeli withdrawal would put more towns within rocket range. The high-tech balloon could help the army find and target rockets and their launchers.

The balloon is equipped with cameras and transmitters, and covers a wide area. The weekly said each Israeli-made balloon system costs about $2 million, and that a total of 10 could be flying by next year.

In four years of conflict, Palestinians have fired hundreds of homemade rockets at settlements in Gaza and Israeli towns and villages just outside the fence. In June, a rocket killed two Israelis, including a child, in the town of Sderot. But most rockets have caused little damage or injury.

Israel has often sent troops into Gaza in an attempt to move the towns out of range of the primitive, highly inaccurate rockets.

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