Arafat's expulsion 'closer than ever'
Yasser Arafat’s expulsion is “closer than ever,” the Israeli foreign minister warned in remarks broadcast on Thursday, as six Palestinians were killed by Israeli army fire in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In the single deadliest incident, in the northern Gaza Strip, soldiers opened fire from a tank-mounted machine gun at Palestinians, killing at least three, including a 13-year-old boy, and wounding nine, Palestinian hospital officials said.
The fighting came as Arafat was embroiled in another power struggle with his Prime Minister, Ahmed Qureia, who submitted a letter of resignation earlier this week, his second since July.
Arafat refused to accept the resignation, and Qureia left in a huff on a private trip to Jordan on Thursday.
It was not clear whether Qureia would stick to his decision to resign.
Arafat, meanwhile, became the target of renewed Israeli threats.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told supporters in a speech late on Wednesday that Arafat’s expulsion is “closer than ever” and that the Palestinian leader has no place in the region. The remarks were broadcast on Thursday on Israel Radio.
Earlier this week, Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said the government remained committed to a security Cabinet decision from last year to remove Arafat.
However, senior government officials say there are no immediate plans to take action against Arafat.
The renewed threats by Shalom apparently came in the context of domestic Israeli politics. Shalom is seen as a potential successor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as leader of the ruling Likud Party, and is courting hawkish activists.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat accused Israeli officials of inciting against Arafat.
“I believe this is part of the strategy of destroying the Palestinian Authority and harming the president,” Erekat said.
Arafat has been confined to his battered headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah for more than two years. Israel accuses Arafat of encouraging militant groups to attack Israel—an allegation Arafat denies.
Israel has repeatedly threatened to expel the veteran Palestinian leader. But the United States opposes such a step, and Sharon has complied with Washington’s wishes. It also appears unlikely he would risk destabilising the region further at a time when he is trying to push ahead with his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005, as part of a unilateral “disengagement” from the Palestinians. Sharon hopes the plan will enable Israel to hold on to large West Bank settlement blocs.
In fighting on Thursday, Israeli forces exchanged fire with Palestinians on the outskirts of the sprawling Jebaliya refugee camp. One gunman was killed and three were wounded when an Israeli attack helicopter fired two missiles toward the area.
Later Thurday, soldiers fired from a tank-mounted machine gun toward a group of Palestinians in the adjacent town of Beit Lahia, killing three and wounding nine, hospital officials said. Some of the Palestinians were throwing stones, while others bystanders, witnesses said.
The army declined to comment.
Troops have been operating in the area since Wednesday to try to stop the firing of homemade rockets from northern Gaza at Israeli towns. On Wednesday, militants fired eight homemade “Qassam” rockets, but no one was hurt.
Troops also entered the West Bank town of Jericho in an arrest raid, briefly exchanging fire with three Palestinians. One gunman was killed and two were wounded, the army said. Five fugitives were arrested on suspicion of arms dealing.
Jericho has largely stayed out of the fighting, and Israeli incursions are rare.
On Wednesday, Sharon decided to move a section of his West Bank separation barrier closer to Israel, but also endorsed a decision to include two large West Bank settlement blocs near Jerusalem on the “Israeli” side of the obstacle.
In a meeting with Defense Ministry planners, Sharon ruled that the southern section of the barrier, not yet constructed, will run along the “Green Line,” the frontier before Israel captured the West Bank in 1967, according to Israeli officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Sharon also said that Maaleh Adumim, a settlement in the desert east of Jerusalem with 31 000 residents, as well as the Gush Etzion, a block of settlements south of Jerusalem with 40 000 residents, would be included on the “Israeli” side.
Including them would mean cutting off chunks of the West Bank and effectively adding them to Israel.
Sharon did not yet rule on the most contentious issue—whether to encircle the second-largest settlement, Ariel, which is in the middle of the West Bank. However, officials said Sharon is determined to eventually include Ariel on the Israeli side.
Original plans for the barrier had it cutting off much more West Bank territory, but Israel’s Supreme Court forced the government to move it closer to the Green Line in some areas to ease hardships on the Palestinians.
Erekat, the Palestinian Cabinet minister, said including Maaleh Adumim and Gush Etzion on the “Israeli” side would mean that Israel is annexing the eastern part of Jerusalem, where the Palestinians want to establish a capital, “prejudging and pre-empting the Jerusalem issue that is reserved for permanent status negotiations.”
Palestinians seek all of the West Bank and Gaza for a state and demand that all the settlements be dismantled. - Sapa-AP