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US pressure on Israel allows Arafat to go free

JERUSALEM (BP)–U.S. and British officials on Monday were working out the details for an American-British plan that may allow Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to leave his Ramallah compound, where he’s been confined to a single floor of his office for more than a month, CNSNews.com reported.

Israel has been demanding that Arafat — in exchange for his freedom — hand over four suspected killers of Israeli minister Rechavam Ze’evy, including Ahmed Sa’adat, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which claimed responsibility for the Ze’evy assassination. Two other suspects also are holed up with Arafat. They include Fuad Shubaki, Arafat’s chief financial officer, who has been implicated in the Karine-A weapons smuggling affair.

The suspects — six in total — have been holed up in Arafat’s Muka’ata compound since Israeli troops and tanks invaded the city last month in an attempt to arrest wanted militants and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure.

Israel rejected a one-day trial of the four in the compound last week, calling it a “farce.” The four were given sentences of between one to 18 years in a Palestinian prison.

Over the weekend, under intensive U.S. pressure, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to a U.S.-British proposal that could lead to Arafat’s freedom.

According to the deal proposed by President Bush, Arafat will be allowed to leave the compound, while the “Ze’evy four” as they are being called, will be guarded in a Palestinian prison by U.S. and British jailers.

It was not clear on Monday just who the jailers will be.

There is a possibility that the U.S. component will be from the military, one U.S. official said on Monday. The number of Americans is expected to be less than 10, he said.

According to the official, the stationing of Americans here is not likely to set a precedent. It was only about finding a solution to the situation at the Muka’ata compound in Ramallah, he added.

British officials were not available for comment.

An Israeli official said he did not believe that the agreement would set a precedent for international observers to be stationed here. Israel, backed by the U.S., has refused to accept international troops here.

Israel is still interested in trying the suspects in an Israeli court, he said.

According to Israel radio, the suspects will be kept in a jail in Jericho, which is somewhat isolated from other West Bank cities.

PA Information minister Yasser Abed Rabbo was quoted as saying that the PA accepted the American-British plan and expected the siege on Arafat to be lifted by Tuesday.

Press reports here said that Israel only agreed to the compromise plan following three telephone conversations between Sharon and Bush, in which the president warned Sharon that the results of Israel’s refusal to accept the proposal would be “catastrophic.”

Israeli officials were quoted as saying that the “catastrophe” related to the U.S. position in the region. Bush also reportedly told Sharon that if Israel accepted the proposal, the U.S. would stand by Israel.

That was interpreted in Jerusalem to refer to Israel’s attempts to change the parameters of the U.N. fact-finding commission on Jenin.

Diplomatic sources were also quoted as noting that the U.S. pressure on Israel followed the meeting between Bush and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah last week.
Stahl is the Jerusalem bureau chief with www.cnsnews.com. Used by permission.

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  • Julie Stahl