Arafat Calls for Peace Talks
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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ In a departure from months of acrimony, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said Saturday that he is ready to resume negotiations with Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and that his hand is stretched out in peace.
While the tone of Arafat’s speech to the Palestinian parliament was conciliatory, he stuck to a demand that Sharon agree to concessions offered by his predecessor Ehud Barak _ which the new Israeli leader has ruled out.
``Our hearts are open and our hands are stretched out for the peace of the brave,″ Arafat said. ``We are ready to move forward in the negotiations with the Israeli government.″
The positive tone of Arafat’s speech _ and of Sharon’s own inaugural speech on Wednesday _ appeared part of an effort on both sides to calm the ongoing violence.
Earlier this week, Sharon wrote to Arafat that he hoped to establish personal contact very soon. A senior Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said efforts were under way to arrange a Sharon-Arafat meeting before Sharon’s March 20 trip to the United States.
However, Sharon’s spokeswoman Odelia Lazar-Carmon said Saturday that such a meeting is ``not expected,″ and Sharon will not meet Arafat until the violence stops.
The Palestinians have refused such Israeli conditions in the past, saying Israel was to blame for the violence because of harsh security measures and blockades of their autonomous area.
But in a possible softening, Arafat told Israelis in his speech that Palestinians ``fully understand their need for security and stability, but on the other hand they should understand the needs and the rights of the Palestinian people.″
Israel’s previous government proposed a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza and a share of Jerusalem. The Palestinians also insisted on full control over a key Jerusalem holy site as well as the right for millions of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.
Sharon, who trounced Barak in last month’s election, condemned those offers as far too generous. Israel says they are now off the table. Sharon has said he will not hand over more land to the Palestinians and will instead aim for another interim agreement, not a final peace deal.
Despite the positive signals, friction continued. In the Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers fatally shot a 25-year-old Palestinian man during the night, Israeli and Palestinian officials said. The army spokesman said the man was in an area off-limits to Palestinians at night because militants have planted dozens of roadside bombs there.
In the West Bank city of Nablus, three Palestinians were wounded. Two armed Palestinians were wounded when they fired on an Israeli observation post on Mt. Eibal, and Israeli troops who lying in ambush nearby opened fire on them, the Israeli army said. Separately, a 50 year-old Palestinian was wounded in the abdomen during an exchange of fire between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers, Palestinian officials said.
The army said it also destroyed a Palestinian police position at the border fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip because it was used as an observation post by Palestinians who set off a powerful roadside bomb Saturday as an army patrol passed. No casualties were reported.
Palestinians opened fire on the Jewish settlers enclave in the West Bank city of Hebron, lightly injuring an Israeli visitor in the leg, the Israeli army said. Earlier, settlers in Hebron stoned Palestinians and beat up three Palestinian journalists working for foreign news agencies, witnesses and Israeli police said. The police said action would be taken against the settlers responsible.
Since the fighting broke out between the Israelis and Palestinians late September, 424 people have been killed, including 348 Palestinians, 57 Israeli Jews and 19 others.
On Saturday, Israeli army bulldozers razed a Palestinian police outpost near the Bureij refugee camp in Gaza, Palestinian officials said.
In his speech, Arafat said Israel should lift its closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, resume the transfer of tax revenues it owes the Palestinian Authority and ``resume the final status talks from the point they had reached.″
``Let’s stop the military escalation, the use of banned weapons and the policy of threats, siege and starvation which has affected all sectors of Palestinian society and which can only lead to increased tension and injects anger into the spirit of the Palestinian people,″ he said.
The Palestinian leader called for the deployment of an international force in the area _ a demand Israel has rejected.
The 88-member parliament was holding its first full plenary session in five months. Legislators had been unable to get together because of an Israeli blockade that confines most Palestinians to their communities. This time, however, the Israelis allowed most of the lawmakers to reach Gaza.