Israel opted not to allow Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to leave Ramallah, but says he is free to leave his compound in the West Bank town, a move slammed as "shameful" by the Palestinians who said it proved Israel is not interested in peace.
The move came after one of the deadliest weeks of violence in the 17-month-old Palestinian uprising, or intifada, simmered down into sporadic unrest, and Arafat's security forces arrested three radicals suspected of murdering an Israeli cabinet minister.
The Palestinians were furious that Israel did not allow Arafat freedom to leave Ramallah, where he had been blockaded since December 3, after the arrests.
Israeli soldiers pose for pictures beside the body of a Palestinian gunman who was killed in an exchange of fire at a checkpoint at Baka a-Sharkiya, February 21, 2002. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced plans to set up special 'buffer zones' to protect Israelis and demanded Palestinians disarm fully, after Israeli forces carried out a new wave of deadly reprisal raids. (Yarif Katz/Reuters)
The leadership held an urgent meeting in Arafat's compound, from where Israeli tanks were due to withdraw in line with the Israeli government's decision. Despite the presence of the tanks, Arafat has left the compound on numerous occasions.
"This is a shameful decision. It is unacceptable, and a clear message that this government does not want a ceasefire, it does not want calm," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP.
"I hope the United States and Europe will recognize that this government's program will only lead the region into war and bloodshed and the whole world should intervene before it is too late," he added.
Top Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rudeina said there would be no more political or security meetings with Israel until it went back on the decision, and called on the world community to "isolate" the right-leaning government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
General Amin al-Hindi, head of Palestinian intelligence, said the Palestinians would boycott a joint security meeting scheduled for late Sunday and aimed at easing the conflict, which claimed some 70 lives in a fresh upsurge last week.
Palestinian information minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said the decision was aimed at "humiliating the Palestinian people," and called on Arab states to also cut all contacts with Israel.
But a Sharon spokesman said the Palestinians had "misinterpreted" the decision, which he said was a "first small step" to ease tensions after the arrest last week of three men accused of the murder of tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi last October.
He said the government could also reconsider its extradition demand for the three members of the hardline Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine if the Palestinian Authority arrested another suspect still at large, spokesman Raanan Gissin said.
The PFLP's armed wing shot Zeevi dead two months after an Israeli helicopter strike in Ramallah killed PFLP chief Abu Ali Mustafa, accused by Israel of orchestrating a string of car bombs.
Arafat has already arrested the PFLP leader's new leader, Ahmed Saadat, and detained him in Arafat's compound but Gissin said the arrest was purely cosmetic.
He also said the Fuad Shubaki, the Palestinian security services financier on trial for his alleged role in trying to smuggle 50 tons of Iran arms to Gaza in January, was not under proper arrest either.
Copyright 2002 AFP