Thu, Dec 23, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Blair pushes for Mideast meeting to restart talks


British Prime Minister Tony Blair launched the first Mideast peace initiative since the death of Yasser Arafat, arriving for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders about a London conference.

Blair arrived late Tuesday, the highest level official to visit since Arafat's death on Nov. 11, reflecting international optimism that with a new Palestinian leadership, peace talks can be restarted.

Israel and the US boycotted Arafat, charging that he was involved in Palestinian violence. Britain did not join that, but Arafat's shunning stifled international peace moves.

In southern Gaza, Israel sent tanks and bulldozers back into the Khan Younis refugee camp early yesterday, just three days after ending an operation in response to rocket and mortar fire by Palestinian militants.

In that raid, 11 Palestinians were killed and about 40 houses destroyed.

The firing resumed after the Sunday pullout, and in the last two days, mortars hit a synagogue and a kindergarten in nearby Jewish settlements.

The military said the current push would last about two days, and abandoned buildings used as cover by militants were being destroyed. Some exchanges of gunfire were heard, but there were no reports of casualties.

Early Wednesday morning Israeli forces in Khan Younis killed one Palestinian militant, Palestinian security forces said. The Israeli military said soldiers shot an armed Palestinian in the western part of the Khan Younis refugee camp.

Also yesterday, Israeli bulldozers destroyed several homes close to the Jewish settlement of Neve Dekelim, Palestinian witnesses said. They said about 400 Palestinian schoolchildren threw stones at Israeli soldiers, and the soldiers responded by firing machine guns into the air.

Attempting to end four years of bloody violence, Britain is proposing a Mideast conference in London, but Israel has said it will not attend. Blair has said that solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict is a high priority.

The Palestinians want the conference to deal with tough issues that have strangled previous peace efforts -- borders, Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements. Israel believes the meeting should consider reforms in the Palestinian administration and not the weighty negotiation issues.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he would not send an Israeli delegation, to avoid transforming the conference into a political gathering of the type Israel does not want.

In a statement on Monday, the British Foreign Office appeared to back Sharon.

"This meeting is about Palestine and practical reforms within Palestine," it said. No date has been set.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath welcomed the British initiative.

"We are favorable to any conference that will help the Palestinian people and will support the peace process based on the `road map,'" he said, referring to an internationally backed blueprint for steps and talks leading to a Palestinian state.

In another initiative on Tuesday, James Wolfensohn, the president of the World Bank. pushed for Palestinian economic reforms and the lifting of Israeli travel restrictions in the West Bank in exchange for an additional US$500 million in desperately need aid to the Palestinians.

The bank wants international donors, led by the US and Europe, to increase the US$930 million they provide in annual aid to the Palestinians by US$500 million, but only if both sides make the needed changes.

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