As U.S. special envoy Dennis B. Ross arrived in Israel on Saturday for talks aimed at pressing Yasser Arafat to crack down on Islamic militants, the Palestinian Authority president again said he will not agree to Israeli demands for “mass arrests.”
In an angry, at times defiant, speech to the Palestinian Legislative Council, Arafat accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of waging “state terrorism” with sanctions against the Palestinians as punishment for a double suicide bombing that killed 13 Israelis in downtown Jerusalem.
“We are committed to peace, the peace of the brave, but not to the peace of dictation, orders, starvation, humiliation and siege,” Arafat told the legislators meeting in emergency session in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “Our people will not kneel.”
Arafat said Israel has demanded that he arrest 188 suspected members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, militant Islamic groups responsible for previous attacks against Israel. Hamas has claimed responsibility for the Jerusalem attack. “We have our law and we implement it,” Arafat said. “But we do not get orders from the Israelis.”
The speech, another in a string of verbal attacks launched by both Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the wake of the July 30 bombings, came hours before Ross’ arrival on a visit aimed at defusing the crisis. It underlined just how difficult the American’s task will be.
The primary focus of Ross’ visit, his first to the region since June, will be to try to get the Palestinian Authority to respond to Israeli demands for more sweeping action against militant groups.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said she will make her first official visit to the region at the end of August if Ross succeeds in persuading Arafat to take concrete steps against the groups, apparently including the arrests of leaders and confiscation of weapons caches.
But U.S. officials in Jerusalem said Arafat’s angry words will not help Ross in his effort to smooth the badly damaged relations between the two sides and restore a measure of trust. “It’s not good,” one said.
Ross is scheduled to meet today with Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Arafat in his Gaza Strip headquarters.
Israel responded to the July bombings with the harshest sanctions it has ever imposed on the Palestinian self-rule government.
It cut the flow of required tax revenues to the Palestinians, suspended all peace negotiations and imposed internal and external closures on the Palestinian territories.
The United States and others in the international community have appealed to the Netanyahu government to soften its hard line and pay what it owes the Palestinians under terms of existing peace agreements. Otherwise, they warn, Israel risks weakening Arafat’s political position, perhaps beyond repair.
But apart from minor easings of the sanctions, Israel has declined to heed the advice.
On Saturday, the government announced that its closure will be lifted slightly today, allowing residents of Janin, Tulkarm and Kalqilya to travel outside their West Bank communities for the first time since the bombing. But Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron are still closed off, and virtually all Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip are forbidden to enter Israel.
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