Wye accord bedeviled by irate exchange

 

A new exchange of angry rhetoric is bedeviling the Wye summit peace deal, under which Israel is to withdraw from another 13 per cent of the occupied West Bank, with the first pull-back scheduled for this week.

Israel is fuming over what it deems a new threat from the Palestinian President, Mr Yasser Arafat, to resort to "the rifle" if the Palestinians are ultimately denied their goal of establishing Jerusalem as their independent capital.

The Palestinians are furious over the encouragement being offered to West Bank settlers by Israel's Foreign Minister, Mr Ariel Sharon, who has urged Jews to grab any hilltops they can before the disputed land is taken over by the Palestinians.

Yesterday afternoon, in a speech that opened the Knesset's debate on the Wye accord, the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, indicated that he would not carry out the first phase of the planned withdrawal until there had been a "public" correction to the remarks made by Mr Arafat at a rally in Ramallah on Sunday.

In an apparent attempt to calm the storm raised by his comment, Mr Arafat yesterday insisted that he is still committed to the peace process.

The Palestinian President spoke of the rifle being "ready to take aim" if the Palestinians were prevented from praying in Jerusalem, and reiterated his desire to establish statehood next May.

Mr Netanyahu said that the threat of violence was unacceptable, and that Israel would not "move another metre" until the Palestinians changed their stance. Later, however, Mr Netanyahu appeared to soften his position, saying that the withdrawal would take place within a few days, on the assumption that the Palestinians began "acting within the spirit of the accord".

The Knesset debate is likely to end in a vote today overwhelmingly endorsing the accord.

Mr Netanyahu spoke by telephone with Mr Arafat in the course of the day, and aides to the Palestinian leader issued statements insisting that he remained committed to a negotiated solution.

On the defensive over Mr Arafat's remarks, the Palestinians expressed grievances of their own yesterday over Mr Sharon's comments, also made on Sunday, urging settlers to take control of West Bank high ground ahead of a permanent Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Mr Sharon said yesterday he had been referring to "hills that dominate the existing settlements, state land" and said he had been aiming at decreasing rather than increasing future tensions.

The settlers themselves, even prior to Mr Sharon's comments, have reportedly placed mobile homes illegally on several hilltops. Yesterday, settlers were ordered by Israeli police to leave a hilltop near the settlement of Kedumim, where two such homes had been placed.

Three Israeli soldiers were killed and four wounded - two of them "very seriously" - in a Hizbullah roadside bombing in the Israeli-occupied border zone in southern Lebanon yesterday afternoon, an Israeli army spokesman said. Israel's second television channel said ammunition and explosives which the soldiers were carrying at the time of the attack had exploded, increasing the casualties.