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Arafat barred from Bethlehem

Israel on Tuesday banned Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem for a third straight year.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israel on Tuesday barred Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem for a third straight year, as Egyptian mediators again pressed Palestinian militants to halt attacks.

With efforts to revive peace talks at a standstill, Israeli leaders sent a mixed message to the Palestinians: Israel is ready to negotiate but will take unilateral action if peace talks fail.
Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has advocated a unilateral pullout from occupied lands in recent weeks, warned the public to be ready for painful concessions. He said “tens of thousands” of settlers in the West Bank and Gaza would be uprooted — though he gave no details.

Meanwhile, violence continued in the West Bank. Israeli soldiers fired at a crowd of stone throwers in the Balata refugee camp, critically wounding a 15-year-old boy in the head, Palestinian hospital workers said. The army said it fired rubber bullets to disperse a crowd, but had no information about the boy.

Arafat told a Christian delegation at his sandbagged headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah that he hoped to participate in the Christmas festivities this year in Bethlehem, the traditional site of Jesus’ birthplace.

“I haven’t missed it, except since being besieged in this building,” Arafat said.

Arafat, a Muslim, regularly attended the Bethlehem celebrations — a politically motivated move aimed at asserting Palestinian control of the town — before Israel confined him to Ramallah two years ago. Israel accuses the Palestinian leader of failing to prevent suicide attacks.

The Palestinian Authority had requested that Arafat be allowed to make the 12-mile trip from Ramallah to Bethlehem, an Israeli official said.

But Israel’s policy is that “Arafat stays where he is,” the Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, called Israel’s decision “unfortunate.”
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia has made the travel issue a priority. Enabling Arafat to move around again would strengthen Qureia’s public standing as he tries to restart peace talks.
Since taking office in October, Qureia has been considering a summit with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But the two sides have been unable to agree on the terms of such a meeting.
Qureia has also been trying to persuade Palestinian militants to halt attacks, a crucial first step toward resuming talks on the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan. The road map envisions a Palestinian state by 2005.

In Gaza, the Egyptian delegation arrived for talks with Arafat’s Fatah faction, and the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Fatah representative Samir Masharawhi said the Egyptians had relayed a message from Washington that the United States is ready to support a Palestinian initiative.
Hamas co-founder Abdel Aziz Rantisi said the Egyptians had not put forward any new proposals and there was no change in his organization’s position.

'Resistance will continue'
“Resistance will continue as long as there is occupation,” Rantisi told reporters after meeting the Egyptians. “This is what the Israelis and the Americans should understand.”
Egyptian mediator Gen. Omar Suleiman had traveled to Washington after a round of cease-fire talks in Cairo this month failed.

Israel has instead demanded that the Palestinian Authority dismantle militant groups as stipulated in the road map. But it has suggested it would scale back military operations if the Palestinians stop their attacks.

Israeli officials, under domestic and international pressure, urged Qureia to return to the negotiating table.

“He will find us willing to talk to him and to reach brave decisions and an agreement, talks between equals,” said Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, speaking at a national security conference in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya.

Sharon has said in recent weeks that he will take unilateral action if peace talks fail. He is expected to release details of his vision Thursday.

Those moves would include the completion of a West Bank separation barrier that dips deep into Palestinian land and the dismantling of some Jewish settlements, said Israeli reports, citing legislators who have spoken to Sharon.

The United States and the Palestinians have insisted on an agreement through negotiations.
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, in Washington for talks with U.S. officials, said Tuesday that Israel will coordinate any unilateral moves with the United States.

The road map requires Israel to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza, and dismantle dozens of tiny unauthorized outposts in the West Bank.

Israel is expected to dismantle the Migron outpost, home to more than 40 families, near Ramallah in the coming days. Opponents flocked to Migron on Tuesday to support the settlers.