Wed, May 07, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Parties fight over road to peace

DEEP DIVISIONS Israelis and Palestinians both say that they want to achieve peace but it is already clear that they have different ideas about what it will take to get there


Israel and the Palestinians argued publicly Monday over how to stop 31 months of violence, and a top US peace envoy appealed to them to work out their differences ahead of launching a new Mideast peace plan.

Ending Palestinian attacks and easing the Israeli military chokehold on the West Bank and Gaza Strip are key points of the first phase of the internationally backed plan, the "road map" to Palestinian statehood within three years.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sounded a conditional but optimistic note Monday while addressing families of fallen soldiers at the beginning of Israel's annual memorial day observance. "There is hope for [peace] this spring," he said. If terrorism is halted, he said, he would be willing to make painful concessions for lasting peace. "If this hope bears fruit ... the opportunity must not be missed."

Meanwhile, violence continued. After nightfall Monday, Palestinians opened fire on a car in the West Bank between Ramallah and Jericho, killing an Israeli and wounding his 6-year-old daughter and another passenger, the military and rescue workers said.

The new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, has said he will try to persuade militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to stop attacks against Israelis. So far the militants have refused to lay down their arms.

Israel demands stiff action, like arresting militant leaders and disarming gunmen.

Sharon said Monday that stopping violence must be Abbas' first priority. "If they do this, in my view we can reach a situation where we will have almost no terror," he said, adding that Israel would continue its own war against the militant groups.

Israeli troops have hunted down Palestinian militants, reoccupying most West Bank towns, killing dozens of wanted men in targeted attacks and arresting thousands. Palestinians demand that Israel stop these measures.

The dispute over how to deal with the militias is a sign of the deep mistrust between the two sides as international mediators -- the US, EU, UN and Russia -- try to promote their peace program.

The three-phase, three-year plan was presented to Israeli and Palestinian leaders last week, immediately after Abbas took power. The decision to wait until Abbas was installed underscored Washington's refusal to deal with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The US envoy, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, met separately Monday with Abbas and Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia, but pointedly snubbed Arafat.

After meeting Burns, Qureia outlined he disagreement. "There are two understandings [of how to deal with the militants]. The Israeli understanding, which calls for a [Palestinian] civil war ... and there is a Palestinian understanding based on dialogue and the Palestinian national interest," Qureia said.

In coordination with Abbas, Egypt plans to renew its sponsorship of talks with the armed groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades linked to the Fatah movement, Palestinian and Egyptian officials said. Invitations have not yet been sent, but the first meetings are tentatively set for next week.

Similar talks held earlier this year ended with Hamas and Islamic Jihad rejecting Egypt's proposal of a one-year cease-fire. However, there was some expectation of a different outcome this time because of growing US pressure on Arab countries to withdraw support from militant groups.

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