Powell arrives in Israel on Mideast peace mission


US Secretary of State Mr Colin Powell arrived in Israel today at the start of a peace mission overshadowed by an Israeli army offensive in the West Bank and a Palestinian suicide bombing on the eve of his visit.

The violence and anger and frustration which feeds that will still be there unless we find a negotiating process [that leads to a Palestinian state].
Mr Colin Powell

Mr Powell flew to Tel Aviv after talks in Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and Spain which focused on 18 months of bloodshed since Palestinians rose up against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The United States has led international calls for Israel to withdraw its troops from Palestinian cities, towns, villages and refugee camps it has occupied in an offensive intended to root out militants behind a wave of suicide attacks.

Earlier White House spokesman Mr Ari Fleischer also confirmed that Mr Powell and Mr Arafat were expected to meet Saturday, despite evident reluctance from key US ally Israel to see the encounter take place.

"It is vital, it is imperative for Chairman Arafat to make public statements denouncing the murderous bombings and other forms of terrorism that are taking place, to renounce violence as a political instrument, and reaffirm his commitment to negotiations as the only path," to peace, said Mr Fleischer.

Mr Fleischer said that US President George Bush had spoken by telephone late yesterday with Mr Powell, who was expected in Israel late this evening, and would do so again today.

Mr Arafat said today he is willing to meet Mr Powell.

Earlier it was reported that Mr Powell had told Israel its military operations in the West Bank will not eliminate the threat of terrorism.

Mr Powell said frustrations will remain among the Palestinian people that could only be addressed by talks.

He said he spoke to Mr Ariel Sharon while in Madrid to discuss their meeting in Jerusalem tomorrow.

He said: "However long the Israeli incursion continues, the problems will still be there," adding that even if Israel is effective, "there will still be people willing to resort to violence and suicide bombings.

"The violence and anger and frustration which feeds that will still be there unless we find a negotiating process" that leads to a Palestinian state.

Asked whether he was on an impossible mission, Mr Powell said: "I do not like wallowing with pessimists. It is necessary for me to go."

He later added: "I am proud to be going, I am pleased to be going to get the sides back on track. My mission is still on. I am not concerned about it."

Mr Powell is scheduled to arrive in Jerusalem late this afternoon after meeting King Abdullah in Jordan.

He said he talked to Mr Sharon about Israeli withdrawals from two towns and 22 villages and said he would have a better idea of Israel's long-term objections after the meeting.

 Palestinian medics
Palestinian medics place the name of a slain Palestinian on his makeshift grave in the garden of the Nablus hospital today. Photograph: Reuters

The Israeli actions sent a mixed message to Washington, the Jewish state's chief ally, hours before Mr Powell was due to arrive in Israel after winning strong international backing for attempts to secure a ceasefire to 18 months of violence.

A suicide attack that killed eight Israeli bus passengers on Wednesday and Palestinian charges that 500 Palestinians have been killed in Israel's 13-day-old military campaign undermined hopes of ending the violence.

Israeli Prime Minister Mr Ariel Sharon has rebuked his international critics, including President Bush, who has called for a withdrawal.

The Israeli army said tanks and troops entered the Palestinian-ruled towns of Bir Zeit and Dahariya and the Ein Beit Elma refugee camp, near the city of Nablus, before dawn today, making arrests and seizing weapons.

Israeli security sources said soldiers also raided the northern West Bank city of Tulkarm and arrested a woman they accused of planning a suicide bombing.

In Lebanon, the Hizbollah guerrilla group has offered to free captive Israeli colonel Elhanan Tannenbaum in return for the safety of some 100 Palestinian fighters besieged in Jenin refugee camp.

An Israeli political source said the government would have no immediate response to the Hizbollah offer.